I need to tell him about Esti Kay. Like, on the date. Tomorrow. So any hope of sleep are obviously things of the past
Faigy did an amazing job on the poster. I squint at it — my eyesight seems to be getting worse with old age, although twenty-five might not yet qualify for that special title, no matter what my mother says. The background is a striking prism of gold and pink, the words seemingly exploding out of the colors.
Chol Hamoed Extravaganza
Starring Esti Kay
Performing live with Chan Lewin
A time to rejoice!
The rest fades into small print I can’t make out.
Shimmy comes back to the table and swivels to see what I’m reading. He squints too, so either the restaurant bulletin board really is too far away, or we’re both reaching middle age.
“Chol Hamoed concert?” he asks, settling back down and reaching for the water pitcher. I watch him, Rivka waiting for Eliezer. He pours for us both; I exhale. A tzaddik gamur, I tell you.
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, one of these women-only events.” I spear a piece of grilled chicken out of my salad, shake off the Caesar dressing, and casually watch his face.
He’s looking down at his beef and broccoli like it holds the answers to all of life’s enigmas. I almost ask him for a peek into his bowl when he looks up, startling me with sudden eye contact.
“Do I sound like a stick in the mud if I say that I find these female performers… off-putting?”
I look at him, willing my facial expression to be both thoughtful and open, while mentally visualizing stabbing him in the eye with his own fork.
“Not at all,” I say mildly. “It’s an interesting topic. I’d love to hear why you feel that way.”
Wow, I managed to get the words out without choking. I’m getting better at this.
Shimmy launches into an impassioned speech about how of course women have talents, but to go and put yourself on a stage is the antithesis of kol kevudah bas melech penimah. I think he got a hinei Sarah b’ohel in there as well, which is impressive because not everyone succeeds at referencing both in one conversation. He’s not wrong, it’s just that I consulted with a posek already, thank you very much.
I hold my breath until he’s done — great vocal exercise — and then fake a covered yawn.
“You’re tired,” he says suddenly. “I’m so sorry, here I am, darshening away.”
I smile beatifically and assure him it’s all right, but Hashem hears my pleas, and less than half an hour later, I’m tottering back into the house on my three-inch heels. They’re a little taller than the two-and-a-half-inch stilettos I wear on stage — even though, those are shorter, but they look more glamorous — but that half-inch throws me every time.
Ma and Ta are doing the dishes when I come home. Yes, they do the dishes together. Ma washes, Ta dries, and Chopin plays softly in the background. Every. Single. Night. Now, some may say that the reason I turned out so fabulously is because of the dependable stability of my childhood. To those people, I say, check your Chol Hamoed calendars.
“Esther Leah,” Ma calls out. “Is that you?”
I kick off my heels, nudge them side by side on the mat by the door, and flat-foot my way into the sparkling kitchen.
“Salutations,” I say, and collapse into a chair.
Ma dries her hands on her apron — yes, she wears an apron to do the dishes, it’s light pink with tiny rosebuds scattered across the skirt — and comes to give me a hug. “How was it, sweetie? How’s Shimmy doing?”
I think about this. The date itself was fine, that gorgeous bookstore and then a restaurant; fourth dates are nice, although I stopped getting excited years ago. But of course, there’s the whole concert thing.
I look at Ma’s earnest face, the serious eyes and straight nose that I know so well, and I wish, just for a moment, that I could tell her everything. Right here, right now.
Ta joins us; he places a bowl of purple grapes on the table. “He’s a fine bochur, Shimmy.”
Mmmm, just what you want to hear. A fine bochur. I can practically hear the band playing our intro. Introducing for the very first time, Esther Leah and a fine bochur!
“He is,” I say agreeably, breaking off a little tree of grapes. I arrange them into a flower shape in front of me.
I look up to find Ta watching me.
“Did conversation flow?” he asks, and I find this rich, considering he and Ma seem to communicate telepathically. I have never once heard conversation flow between the two of them. Not once.
“It did. He has a lot of opinions about different things,” I say, my tone darkening only slightly.
Ma cocks her head to the side, Ta raises an eyebrow.
“Like, he gets on a bit of a soapbox,” I clarify. “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
“You have a lot of opinions,” Ma points out. “Remember how you used to give these long soliloquies about how we should allow you to go to performing arts camp, how you hate numbers and will NEVER become a CPA. And how you don’t need to go to college at all, one day you’ll end up rich and famous —”
I’m saved from answering because just at that moment, Ta accidentally knocks the bowl of grapes off the table and we all have to scramble around, collecting grapes from the floor with Ma deciding she’ll mop again as a result.
Esti Kay was created almost accidently. Chan Lewin’s daughter was my camper five years ago, and when she heard me singing cantata with the girls, she came over and asked if I wanted to record an original song with her. I agreed before she had even finished asking: It was an opportunity for me to write songs and share them with the world! But then when she asked what name to put on the single, I froze. Esther Leah Krause was out of the question, so I told her to put down Esti K. But she said it needed more. So Esti Kay was born.
Since then we’ve produced two albums together. Then the concert presentations started. I wonder what Shimmy, the fine bochur, would say if he knew I came with my own collection of blonde custom sheitels. His mother would probably appreciate the break from budget. The fedora collection and bejeweled eye masks might not be as appealing, but that’s the Esti Kay look: Lob chic meets Lone Ranger. Blond blunt cut and colored fedoras pulled low, topped with eye masks that I bejewel myself with like a sixth grader. (In the beginning, there were Covid masks, but while those eventually became unnecessary, my need for anonymity did not, so I upgraded to the eye region. You’d be surprised how different it makes a person look. It’s inevitable that someone will recognize me one night, but so far, it hasn’t happened.)
I actually saw a little girl wearing an Esti Kay costume on Purim and I don’t think I’ve ever been more flattered in my entire life.
I lean toward the mirror, the night’s date still evident in the perfectly contoured makeup and blow-dried hair. No, it would be hard to recognize blond, glittery Esti Kay in staid, elegant, brunette Esther Leah Krause, CPA to the not-so-stars.
I groan, thinking of work tomorrow, and reach for a makeup wipe. Cantor and Krause is a lovely place to work. You know, if you enjoy crunching numbers and having lunch dates with your father and uncle. Otherwise, it is mind-numbingly boring.
Ma and Ta were insistent that their children do things the right way. Best schools, best sems and yeshivos, best frum college programs, and then on to staid, dependable jobs that will provide security and, well, dependability. A quiet course of life for a quiet family.
Then, you know, there’s me.
My phone pings; I know it will be Bluma before I even look at it. Bluma, who can be blonde and sparkly all she wants, Bluma who got married at 18, Bluma who has three kids already. My best friend since I’m six, who lets me in on the goings on of her life, which aren’t as sparkly as you’d think.
How was date number four, young lady?
Not funny, she knows I hate that my parents call me young lady.
It was fine, Mommy.
She hates when people other than her kids call her Mommy.
Nekamah’s not nice, but it’s fun.
“Esther Leah, are you late?” Shana looks at her watch. “You’re never late!”
I squint at my coworker. “Tired. Need coffee,” I mumble. She’s right. Krauses are never late. I’d stayed up until two rehashing the date with Bluma. She thinks Shimmy sounds like a really nice person. I know “nice” is the highest praise Bluma can bestow at this point in her life and I do appreciate that in him. As the only person aside from my managing team who knows that I’m Esti Kay, she made it very clear that any opinion he relates on the topic of female performers while not knowing the truth about my secret life just doesn’t count. I wish I had her confidence on the matter, but I don’t.
I’ve spent my entire life trying to prove to my parents that I’m just as much an extrovert as they are introverts. Not that there’s anything wrong with who they are — there really isn’t — but it’s just not me. So when given the chance, I grabbed the opportunity to show the world who I really am. Even if I can’t show my parents.
But I can’t do that to my future husband. I can’t make him into a person I resent, a presence I tolerate instead of celebrate.
By two a.m., Bluma had agreed with me.
Worth it, even if it made me late for work.
My phone buzzes while I’m inserting a capsule into the Nespresso.
Rehearsal at nine work for you, superstar?
My manager, Lally, is amazing. She can keep a secret like nobody’s business. Okay, and she also signed like 19 NDAs, but still. I trust her with my secret life.
Inhaling the scent of French roast, I tap back: Sounds great, can’t wait, don’t be laaate. Just some early morning song lyrics. Then the phone buzzes with calendar reminders, costume fittings and sound check reminders. My head starts to pound; it’s probably the lack of caffeine. I take a sip and feel the soothing warmth fill me. Better.
Buzz. I refrain from throwing the phone across the room — that is not how a Krause behaves — and swipe.
Ahhh, the shadchan.
Shimmy had a wonderful time. Does Sunday, late afternoon work for the next date?
I can’t deal with this right now.
I slide into my desk and punch in. Only eight hours until I can punch out again and then maybe I’ll have time to sit in a coffee shop and write some song lyrics before rehearsal tonight.
Because honestly, that’s all I want to do right now.
During lunch, I surreptitiously check the Esti Kay email address. The public doesn’t have access, but my manager forwards me all the Esti Kay emails, and today, there are eleven new ones.
Esti Kay, you are amazing! Can you come sing at my bas mitzvah?
Hi Esti, this is Riva from Chai Lifeline, we’re wondering if you can perform in the hospital this Monday?
Hi Esti Kay, I love you soooo much, my morah says your song about Modeh Ani is very good for us to sing so we sing it every day!
I think I’m crying. I finish my salad and quickly exit the screen.
Back to crunching those numbers.
Is it wrong that between work at Cantor and Krause and dress rehearsal with Lally and the backup singers, writing songs in Starbucks was the best part of my day?
I tiptoe into the house, exhausted, hoping to just get to the refuge of my room with minimal interference, but Ma has the hearing of a bat.
Do not kvetch, do not kvetch. “Hi, Ma,” I call down as cheerily as possible. “How are you? How was your day?”
“Esther Leah, can you come down here a minute?”
Shoots, what did I do? I clomp back down the stairs, growing more apprehensive by the second.
Oooh, I forgot to text back the shadchan. Is that it? That must be it.
I enter the kitchen and freeze because A: Tatty is nowhere to be seen and it’s very rare to see Ma without Ta. And B: because Ma did not call me here to re-explain the proper protocol, once again, for dealing with hardworking and long-suffering shadchanim (her words). She’d called me down, apparently, because she found a short, blunt, and very blonde sheitel in the back of my closet.
Ma looks at me. I look at Ma. We both look at the sheitel lying on the table like a very weird centerpiece.
“Oh, that’s Bluma’s,” I blurt out.
Lying to my own mother. For shame.
“Bluma’s?” Ma has a funny look on her face. “It doesn’t look like Bluma’s style. Why do you have it? Why’d she leave it by you? Have you, uh, been trying it on? Does she want you to send it to her?”
I’m silent under this barrage, and that’s when Ta comes in.
“Hi Esther Leah. Frieda, the dryer’s making a strange noise. Maybe something’s stuck in the vent?”
Ma gasps and hurries off, and Ta gives me a clumsy pat on the head and hurries after her.
I grab the offending wig and hustle back up the steps. Phew! Saved by the twenty-year-old appliance.
I collapse on the bed, sheitel still clutched in my hands, and stare at the ceiling. Why do I sometimes feel like I’m a hundred years old?
My phone buzzes, causing me to actually wail out loud. Good thing the dryer will drown out the sound.
Hi Esther Leah, just checking you received my message earlier?
I kick off my shoes, fling the sheitel across the room — sorry, costume designers! — and message back.
So sorry for the delay. Yes, that’s fine, thank you. Looking forward.
Ma would be proud.
I need to go to sleep.
Sunday morning, after my manicure and blow dry, I head to Starbucks for two hours of uninterrupted songwriting time before I have to get dressed for the date. I think about visiting the hospital tomorrow, I wonder if my new song will be ready? But they probably just want the favorites… I guess I’ll see how it turns out.
Shimmy takes me pottery painting. I smirk to myself; most of the fine bochurim I go out with think pottery painting is the perfect date for a nice, quiet CPA.
I pull my favorite piece, a square, four-sided vase, off the shelf and wait for Shimmy to pick his. He chooses a mug in the shape of a dog. Interesting. I’ll have to psychoanalyze that later. But I appreciate his deviation from the endless parade of plates my dates usually choose.
The thing is, all cynicism aside, I actually have fun. Like, a lot of fun. Yes, I spend the first few minutes mentally yelling at him for not taking me miniature golfing or on a boat ride, like one of Bluma’s guys had done for her, the third in a long list of sparkly names her mom had waiting when she stepped off the plane. But once I get over the CPA racial-profiling, I lean into the date, and I think it might be the best time I’ve had in a while.
Which bothers me to no end.
I put so much into creating this fabulous secret life for myself, why would I enjoy the company of Shimmy Hirsch more than my small concert at Bais Yaakov’s bas mitzvah event last week?
Sleep doesn’t come as easily that night.
Hospitals are not my favorite place, but giving back is a huge part of fame and fortune. I duck into a restroom to change into my Esti Kay getup and then head up to the children’s ward. Riva, the liaison who’d messaged me, meets me at the doors and she can’t stop gushing about how much this is going to mean to Tali.
I tilt my hot pink fedora further down, grasp my guitar, and step into the room.
Oh no. The girl propped up by three pillows looks to be around 11 and has the largest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. Oh, Hashem. I resist the urge to turn around and run from the room, and instead step forward, and in my best Esti Kay voice, say, “Did someone request a private concert?”
Tali laughs weakly. “You bet! I can’t believe you came!”
I put the guitar down and perch on a chair near her bed. “Of course I came! I just wrote a new song and I need to try it out on someone.”
Tali’s eyes seem to grow even larger, if that’s possible. “No. Way!”
I nod and pick up the guitar again. “You ready?”
For the next hour, I lose myself in music.
It’s not fair. It just really doesn’t seem fair. Here I have two wonderful lives to make a mess of, and Tali has one small life she’s slowly losing her grip on. And because I’m tired, and worn out, and confused, I put my head down on the steering wheel and cry in the parking lot of Sloan Kettering.
Shimmy calls me himself that night, so I guess we’re dropping the shadchan. Sixth date. Wow, I’ve never reached this point before. I’m excited and nervous and also, my rav says I need to tell him about Esti Kay. Like, on the date. Tomorrow. So any hope of sleep are obviously things of the past. And also, this is probably going to be my last date with Shimmy Hirsch.
I can’t do this.
“I can’t do this,” I tell Bluma. I hear the sounds of her kids, playing and yelling and whining and I just want her to go lock herself in a closet and focus on me.
“You can,” she says firmly. “You can tell him because he likes you for you, Est. He likes the quietest version of you and he likes every version of you. So you’re just introducing him to another version of you.”
“The real one,” I say automatically.
There’s silence on the other end. “Hello?” I say uncertainly.
“Are you sure about that?” Bluma asks quietly.
“What? Am I sure about what?” I snap.
She clears her throat. “It’s just… we always speak before you perform. And you get, uh, edgy. And cranky. And you don’t seem like you’re in your element. You actually seem like a person who’s being forced to do something they really don’t want to.”
I think I’m speechless. Doesn’t want to? I’m living out my dream here! I’m performing for thousands. I’m making thousands!
“Bluma…” I start to say.
But then her Tammy falls and she hangs up.
I have no idea what Bluma is babbling about, but I’m having a miniature panic attack. I think about who I can speak to, who I can bounce my thoughts off, but honestly, I’d rather just go to my room and write.
Ma and Ta are whispering in the kitchen. I stop in only long enough to grab a yogurt.
Ta gives me a long look that I can’t interpret; Ma looks hesitant.
“Esther Leah… I heard he dropped the shadchan. Are you ready for tomorrow night, sweetheart?”
“Do you want to plan what you’re wearing?”
I lose it.
“Ma, I’m not like you. I don’t want to plan every second of my life, I don’t want to know everything in advance. I like spontaneity and excitement and… and miniature golf!” I end triumphantly.
Yet even as I say it, it feels strange. So muttering an apology for my outburst — how very not Krause — I head upstairs to bed. And yes, first I plan what I’m wearing.
I lie in bed, watching the clip Riva sent me of Tali singing along with my performance in the hospital. I look so exotic, so mysterious, in my blonde wig and hot pink fedora. I wouldn’t even recognize me. And Tali’s face… underneath her knit cap, her sunken eyes are glowing.
I did that. I gave her that. So why do I feel so wrong?
I think about how we look walking together, side by side down the boardwalk. We complement each other. Tall, dark, elegant. He likes that, I think. He wants a quiet, refined ezer k’negdo.
We settle on a bench and he pulls out two bags of chips and two cans of seltzer. “This looks like a cheap date, but really it’s just practical,” he says sheepishly.
I laugh. “Hey, it’s exactly what the moment calls for. Thank you.”
I pull open my chips and gaze into the bag. How do I begin? Where do I start? I know what’s going to happen. He’s going to walk away. And I’m going to lose the fine bochur whose company I’ve begun to look forward to.
He makes a brachah, and we sit quietly, listening to the waves.
“I wanted to ask—”
“Can we talk—?”
He bows his head. “Ladies first.”
Oh boy, here we go. “Okay. Uh. Shimmy.” Have I ever called him by his name before? It feels nice.
“Shimmy, I need to tell you something. Something pretty big. My rav said… now is the time.”
Ohmigosh, he thinks I have a secret illness, I see it on his face.
“Baruch Hashem, I’m healthy,” I say quickly. Totally should’ve led with that. The look of relief in his eyes is comical.
“It’s not that. Um, do you remember when we were discussing female performers? And you said you don’t understand the concept, etcetera.”
He nods, looking lost.
Okay, here goes. My hand is shaking, the chips bag slides out of it and spills onto the bench.
“I’m a performer, Shimmy.”
He was not expecting that. An amused look flashes across his face. “You’re a what?”
“A performer. A singer. I totally follow daas Torah, by the way. I have a rav I consult with and everything. Remember that poster we were looking at, the upcoming Chol Hamoed concert? That’s me, Shimmy.” Okay, now I can’t seem to stop saying his name. “That’s my concert. I’m performing for over two thousand women.”
He no longer looks amused. He’s not even looking at me.
So I start to babble. “My family is quiet. Like really quiet. Like they’re all fine just being CPAs their whole lives. To follow rules, to be content with one or two relationships. But I’ve never been like that. And no one believed me when I told them I wanted more; I wanted to perform, to sing, to be somebody more than a number cruncher.”
I will him to look at me. “I’m an extrovert in an introverted family.”
I run out of words.
He’s still not looking at me. So we look out at the water together and I try not to cry.
After ten minutes, he clears his throat. “I don’t think you’re right,” he says.
I blink, I was not expecting that. “Um. Right about what?”
“That you’re an extrovert. That you’ve been trapped in a quiet family.”
“I think you actually enjoy quiet, quality moments with people. I know our dates have been what you might be calling ‘introverted.’ Bookstores and painting and walks. And you never once seemed out of your element. I’m sure there are aspects of your secret life you enjoy, but I think you’re confusing enjoyment and identity.”
First Bluma, now him. Why don’t they get it? I’m annoyed. I have a contract with a recording studio, I have a secret bank account that holds more than enough money for a down payment on a house and can keep my future husband in learning for as long as he wants. I have adoring fans and costume designers and managers… I am not just a CPA!
“I think you’re wrong,” I say firmly.
I get to my feet, and the empty chips bag falls to the ground. I watch Shimmy pick it up.
“I’d like to go home now,” I say woodenly.
I never do find out what it was he wanted to ask.
The concert hall is packed. I run my fingers down the glittery two-piece Batya designed for me, ensure my fedora is over my eyes, and pick up my guitar. It’s show time. I listen to Chan Lewin pumping up the crowd.
“A very special performer, a dear friend of mine…” Yada yada yada.
I yawn suddenly. I’m exhausted. I imagine being at home, in a sweatshirt, cozy on the basement couch, notebook open as I jot down lyrics, guitar nearby so I can strum some chords…
I look down. The glitter suddenly seems gaudy, the fedora un-classy.
I hear my cue. I push aside the curtain and bound onto the stage; the crowd goes wild.
But all I can think, as I belt out our latest hits with Chan, is how Shimmy Hirsch might just be right.
I tell them the next day. Ma is buttering bagels while Ta hums over a sefer. I don’t even make an awkward introduction, I just go for it.
Ma’s face is white, and I know I’ve betrayed her. To know your child hid so much from you must be terribly painful; I’ll need to work on atonement.
And Ta… is suspiciously quiet. Ma excuses herself, eyes filled with tears.
I might be the worst person in the whole world.
Ta looks at me. “That Lally really shot you into stardom, hmm?”
My mouth hangs open. “What?”
Ta cracks a smile. “If you knew how much mail I’ve intercepted for you over the years… it’s basically a side job these days.”
I haven’t felt this off-kilter since that date with Shimmy.
“Ta… you knew?”
He strokes my cheek. “Think about it, sweetheart.”
I do. I think about grapes rolling off the table and dryers mysteriously breaking at opportune moments. And apparently, the absence of fan mail to my home address.
“I don’t know what to say,” I whisper.
Ta looks at me. “Say that you’re happy. And hire me to do your taxes.”
I call Shimmy the next day. “You were right,” I say by way of introduction. I know he’s not busy, the hardworking, long-suffering shadchan had assured me of this.
He laughs dryly.
“I spent so much time comparing my family to those around me, and finding them lacking, I never stopped to realize that no one is putting anyone into a box… except me. And I went a bit too far to prove that I wasn’t part of their package. Maybe I am, maybe I’m not, but you were right when you said I was confusing two different things.”
“So this is…”
“An apology,” I say, my voice cracking. “For not hearing you out fully.”
He clears his throat. “Would you like to meet tonight?”
I smile through my tears. “Yes please. Can we go back to that bookstore? It was gorgeous.”
He laughs. “See you at seven.”
It’s an incredible feeling to be seen for yourself. Shimmy sees me. Even if at times I peer into the mirror and don’t know what I’ll find. Baby steps, though.
It was hard for him at first, he wasn’t kidding about finding the idea of a female performer off-putting. But I introduced him to my rav, and they spoke for a long time. And now he’s totally on board, which is saying something.
It’s taking Ma a bit longer, although I can tell she’s proud of me.
And she loves Shimmy, so that helps.
“I’m pretty sure Chaiky’s entire ninth grade class will be showing up at the wedding to meet the one and only Esti Kay,” Shimmy says as we share a slice of cheesecake after choosing candlesticks together.
“I’m fine with that. Will they be disappointed that I’m not blonde and super cool?”
Shimmy looks at me. “No one could ever be disappointed with you, Esther Leah.”
The giant menorah splashed across the backdrop glows as I step onto the stage.
It feels right, to be out here, at long last, as Esther Leah. No costumes, no disguises. Just me.
The thousand-strong crowd is screaming my name, but this time, the only glittery thing in sight is the ring on my left hand. I’m wearing a dress from my closet and my vort heels, and I’ve never felt more myself.
I tuck a brunette strand behind my ear — last hair-hurrah before sheitels — wave at the crowd, perch on a stool, and lose myself in song.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 931)
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