American Dreams| April 3, 2023
“It’s your job, to make her smile, to bring her happiness, and a girl like this, she can use it. You’ll know what you have to do. It’s not as easy as you think, but it’s also not so hard.”
Chavie was sitting with the calendar again, her reading glasses on.
“Shaya?” she said, and he stopped in the doorway to the kitchen.
“Yes,” he answered, trying not to sound impatient, which he was. This was the fourth conversation about the same topic, and he didn’t doubt there would be a few more rounds.
“I feel like Sunday is a crazy day, and Tuesday is Erev Yom Tov, so it can only be Monday, right? I hope it works for everyone. Penina isn’t sure, and Dovi said it depends on his in-laws’ schedule, and Bassi is due, Chaya Bracha has her whole story, and Ushy can never give answers.”
He nodded, trying to appear understanding. He really was understanding, generally, of how much this trip meant to her.
His friends told him their wives were already getting tired of making Yom Tov, the mess and the noise were too much for them, but Chavie wasn’t like that. She didn’t mind that there would be no hot water for showers and the playroom would get wrecked.
Half the people on their Flatbush block had already sold and moved to Lakewood, but Chavie was unwilling to give up the house that had housed so many Yamim Tovim.
She loved every part of Yom Tov, but the eineklach trip was her highlight, the one day of Chol Hamoed when Shaya made sure to have no work responsibilities, and everyone joined, a convoy of cars heading to whatever amusement center, aquarium, ropes course, or zoo they’d agreed upon.
Chavie would be in her element, insisting on pictures, introducing the entire family to any vague acquaintance she met, running from one attraction to the next even before everyone was done.
It was a big hassle, but he understood. Chavie had grown up in a painfully quiet house, just her, a widowed mother, and two very serious brothers, and if she wanted laughter or action, she had to go to a friend’s house.
After Yom Tov, she’d send pictures of the trip to her sisters-in-law, with commentary under each one — Dovi’s Mendy looks like Mommy, no? Can you believe Blumi is going to seminary, and Remember the snowstorm at this one’s bris — and check her phone obsessively until they responded, usually with a tepid “so cute,” or “delicious, thanks for sharing.”
He went along with the trips, happy that Chavie was happy, though he would have much preferred sitting around a table at home with all of them, rather than making this big show, a public display of “Look at us, look at the Wolberg clan, and all of our nachas.” Whatever. Best to let go and not make an issue out of it. That was always his policy.
There were a few more rounds of Sunday or Monday, to which Shaya listened politely, and finally, as Pesach approached, they decided on Monday.
Neither Shaya nor Chavie had ever been to American Dream, and it seemed like the perfect destination: not too far, indoors, and, for Chavie, happening enough that there would no doubt be an audience to appreciate the show of “What a beautiful family they have,” and “They made such nice shidduchim,” and “Their eineklach are so sweet, look at the matching sweaters.”
Shaya liked a place where he could sit and do the daf if he needed a break, and if he could chap a Minchah it was a bonus. American Dream suited him just fine.
Yes, he assured Chavie a few more times, no emails, no quick texts, and no conference calls. It would be family time, all the way.
He heard her on the phone with Chaya Bracha one night. She was using her “trying not to sound overeager” voice, which made her sound extra overeager, and wondering casually what the little girls would wear on Chol Hamoed. Chaya Bracha must have brushed off the question and Chavie panicked a bit — Shaya could hear it — and changed the subject too quickly.
Shaya was on his way to the study then, but he stopped suddenly, and leaned against the wall as the realization washed over him, as real as a heavy overcoat, that the kids were done with it.
The trip wouldn’t happen.
Maybe this Yom Tov it would, maybe another Yom Tov or two, but it was a drag for them. Their children were older and had different interests, the teenagers preferring to go out with friends. Each of them had spouses with their own ideas and in-laws with their schedules, and Eliezer had started working and got only one day of Chol Hamoed off and who said he wanted to spend it with his wife’s family… it was obvious to Shaya now.
He knew with certainty that the kids would have a hard time telling Chavie, that they would appoint Penina, as the oldest, to explain it to Mommy, and the Wolberg family Chol Hamoed would be taking a different turn.
The first days were busy, and even Chavie didn’t mention the trip. The Sedorim were beautiful and the house was noisy and boisterous and Shaya barely had time to speak to her at all.
On Sunday morning, the first day of Chol Hamoed, Penina called.
“Hey sweetie.” Chavie was in the Pesach kitchen and she put in her AirPods so she could keep frying onions.
Shaya, who had been listening out for the call, gently stood up from his open Chumash and tiptoed over to the doorway of the kitchen.
“Oh!” Chavie exclaimed. “And urgent care said it wasn’t serious, that’s great. But what? I hear, you never lose being on the safe side… omigosh, tomorrow too? But the trip, how can that work?”
“Oh.” Chavie turned off the flame suddenly and stood in place. “Really? Hadassa’s parents actually said that, or Dovi just thinks they feel challenged?”
She said “Oh” a few more times, and Shaya felt his heart contract.
Shaya Wolberg did not make issues out of things. Talking too much, he had learned, just invited more drama and then it was a whole circus, the story getting more elaborate each time it was discussed.
So as his wife faltered and said, “Ushy isn’t down? I hear that, he’s basically a newlywed, and he spends so much time learning, he should spend time having fun with his family,” in a tiny voice. Shaya slipped away and went back to his sefer.
Maybe it would blow over.
Maybe Chavie was secretly relieved.
By Sunday afternoon, four of the five had called in with excuses. Despite what urgent care had said, Shloimy had bronchitis; Dovi and Hadassa were going somewhere with her family — her sisters were in from Eretz Yisrael, they couldn’t insult them, “Of course not, of course you can’t,” Chavie said; Eliezer had to work and Bassi wouldn’t go without him; Chaya Bracha and Shmuel Dovid said they would come; Ushy and Leah really wanted to go birdwatching in the Adirondacks.
By the evening, when it was time for Minchah, Shaya had come to another realization, and once again, he knew it with certainty.
Just as they had an active family chat — Chavie’s favorite thing in the world was to scroll through it, going back weeks and rereading messages, looking at pictures and laughing at jokes that were now totally out of context — his kids had another one without him and Chavie.
It was clear because by early evening, the messages that came in on “BEST FAMILY EVER: WOLBERG HQ” were on a schedule, like the auto-reminders to pay your credit card, a well-planned and concerted attempt to make Chavie feel good and soften their own guilt.
-Ma, we have the best memories… it’s like magic.
-Really hope we can get back on schedule Succos Ma
Precisely two minutes later, Dovi offered philosophy and a touch of humor. NO ONE EVER did it our way and we have to hope that we get the chance again real soon, but for now, wherever we are, we have 2 live chol hamoed the way Mommy taught us. Remember – no such thing as too much snacks, messy cars are part of the fun, and make sure your eyes are open in the pictures!!!
Chavie was still very hurt, but she couldn’t give her kids the cold shoulder, and this was too much for her to resist.
“Hey, I’m still alive #TYH” she wrote, and actually laughed out loud.
She would be okay, Shaya knew. It was best not to make an issue of it.
Monday suddenly stretched out before Shaya and it was like a gift. There had been a half-hearted conversation about the two of them going with just Chaya Bracha’s family, but it was just a formality— Chaya Bracha didn’t need them and Chavie wasn’t anyone’s nebach, as she said.
Shaya had dreams of chazering Nazir, it had been a hard masechta and the daf was relentless, and he also thought it would do him good to review the Lexington file in depth, since he was meeting the broker the following week and liked to be well-informed.
When he came home from Shacharis, Chavie was still in the room, which was unlike her. Usually, she was up early on trip day, slicing apples, making sure everyone had diapers and drinks and pacifiers, and commenting on how perfect the weather was.
He thought it best to avoid going up, because then it would become a whole issue.
There was time for a real breakfast, Chol Hamoed style, and Shaya considered scrambling eggs for himself. Maybe he would surprise Chavie and make her eggs as well — but would that make her feel more like a nebach?
He shuffled around the small Pesach kitchen, then headed up the stairs, walking heavily to announce that he was coming.
Chavie came out and met him in the hallway, clearly determined to show him she was just fine.
He returned her bright smile, and was about to tell her, “Listen, Chav, the fact that they’re moving on just means you did a great job,” but seeing her face, he knew that would be making an issue.
Instead, Shaya spoke firmly, in a voice that was unfamiliar even to him.
“Chavie, how soon do you think you can be ready to go out? I need some time with you, out of this house.”
She looked confused. “Huh?”
“How soon?” he asked again.
“Um, okay, I guess in half an hour? I still have to daven and grab a coffee?”
“Perfect.” He started back down the steps. “See you then.”
“Where are we going?” she asked, a trace of excitement in her voice.
Good, he thought.
“American Dream,” he said without looking back.
They drove in silence, neither of them sure what to say.
She was going for him, he thought, though she was unsure what he wanted. He also didn’t know what he wanted, but he didn’t think it was good for her to be home.
Dovi and Hadassa were still staying with them, and he was eager to get Chavie out of the house before all their kids came clamoring in for breakfast and she would feel compelled to stay. Just to feed them, then to clean up, then to schmooze a bit. He didn’t think he’d be able to stand up to his children’s judgment — he could see Hadassa running to her room to update her siblings on their private chat. “Get this, Abba and Mommy are doing a chol hamoed trip!!! ALONE!!!!”
He didn’t even want to imagine the responses.
There was an Odyssey in the right lane with a couple who looked around their own age, a gray-bearded man driving, a face in every window, and the van nearly shaking from the loud music. Shaya sped up and passed it as quickly as he could, hoping Chavie wouldn’t notice.
She wouldn’t say anything, she would only think it, so he couldn’t even convince her that she was wrong.
He wanted to put on music, but he wasn’t even sure how it worked without tapes or CDs. His phone was connected to the speaker, but when he turned the volume on, an energetic burst of Reb Sruly Bornstein on mitzvos tzrichos kavanah came out. Chavie smiled and took the phone from him.
“I don’t think you have music here,” she said, and she turned over her phone, which had been face-down on her lap.
He was happy she was smiling, even though it wasn’t a real smile, and she knew that he knew that.
“And what music are you in the mood of listening to?” she asked playfully.
The Wolbergs were a musical family, each of the children have strong opinions about what to play; it had been years since Shaya had been asked to choose music. He was going to say something vague, but he decided that if he was going to do it, he’d go all in, really choose.
“In yeshivah, we listened to a lot of Carlebach,” he said.
This answer pleased Chavie, and she made a little playlist, starting with Adir Hu, which he liked. He hummed along and then she did, too, neither of them looking at the other.
The magic was broken when her phone rang, Penina calling to ask Chavie to listen to Shloimy’s cough through the phone and to decide if they had to go back to the doctor or not.
Chavie also checked what Penina was going to do for supper and where Menachem was taking the other kids while she was home, and reminded Penina that fluids, fluids, fluids was the way to go with bronchitis.
“Why do you sound like you’re in the car?” Shaya heard Penina ask.
Chavie looked startled at the question and said, “Oh, I just ran out with Abba.”
When she hung up, the music didn’t start up again, and Shaya didn’t say anything. They were seven minutes from their destination anyhow, so there was really no point.
They were early, Shaya knew — the empty parking garage made that clear. He took his time parking, delaying the next step because he had no idea what he was planning.
He did know that this was on him though, and he would do what it took.
They parked and walked toward the entrance, Chavie filling the silence by remembering when she had forgotten where she’d parked at Woodbury Commons and had to walk around pressing the panic button for half an hour until she found her car.
He laughed, then opened the door expansively and held it for her.
“Where to, Chav? The day is yours,” he said.
“I’d love to go look at the Gucci store, Louis Vuitton, just for fun,” she said. “Not to buy, don’t worry.”
“For sure,” he said agreeably, “but let’s do something first, no?”
They walked casually until they saw the first map — interactive, you had to touch it and then things got big and small — but Shaya figured it out and pointed to the left.
“This way,” he said. “We’ll get to the shopping area soon. Come on, let’s see your swing.”
The miniature golf was glow-in-the-dark and eerie, and there were no other people there. An attendant who looked like she was 11 jumped up too quickly and gave them an over-exuberant welcome, as if it was completely normal for a 60-something-year-old couple to come in.
He let Chavie go first, and she missed the ball completely with her swing. She tried again, and the ball flew up the ramp, into the open mouth of a tiger and then through a cup. It struck a wooden board, took a strange bounce, and came all the way back to her.
She burst out laughing — real laughter, Shaya noted — and covered her face in mock embarrassment.
“I can’t, Shaya,” she whispered.
He smiled indulgently.
“One more time, you got this,” he said.
She whacked at the ball, and this time, it sailed off.
Still, it took 11 more shots until it landed gently in the hole, but Chavie celebrated like it was a hole in one, giving an uncharacteristic little jump.
He was next, and he got a hole in four shots.
“Look at you, analyzing the angles and figuring this out like a math trick, that’s cheating. Just hit it, naturally. It’s not your income tax,” Chavie said.
He grinned and winked as the ball fell into the hole with a soft thud.
“Come on, maybe you’ll do better on the second hole, Mrs. It’s Cheating,” he said, leading her on.
At the third hole, she said she needed a break.
“I once read that businesspeople like to play golf, because it’s a metaphor for everything,” Shaya told her. “It starts out and everyone is optimistic, it looks beautiful and it feels like it will be easy, and then, a few holes in, it becomes challenging. You’re like, ‘how am I already here,’ and that itself is a good reminder, you know, close the deal, make it happen.”
Chavie looked at him blankly and he shrugged.
“I don’t know. Maybe the mashal was the opposite, I’m not a golf guy, but it was something like that.”
She laughed again and made a competitive face. “Okay, I’m glad it’s getting harder for you, ’cause I’m right here breathing down your neck. You’re gonna lose, mister.”
When they returned the golf clubs to the girl and thanked her, she told them they were a cute couple.
They both blinked as they stepped back into the mall, their eyes getting reaccustomed to the light. It was much busier than it had been when they’d arrived, and Chavie was looking around at the people — so, so many frum people — and she did that thing that meant she’d seen someone she knew, her shoulders straight, her smile in place.
“Look, Shaya, it’s the Landmans, from the bungalow colony.”
Shaya nodded. These days, they went up to the country only for Shabbos, and it wasn’t the center of their emotional and social equilibrium like it had once been. At a different time, when the kids were young, Skylight Estates had been a big part of their world, and Devorah Landman had been one of the people who could always be counted on to make Chavie feel bad, even though it was never intentional.
Her kids didn’t fight by the pool, her husband came up Thursday night with flowers, and she didn’t know what to do with the shadchanim — her daughter was home from seminary for a week and they were already making her crazy.
Now, Devorah and Chavie embraced, then stepped back and took a good look at each other.
“How have you been?” Devorah said. “I was sure I would see you at Hertz’s wedding, the whole chevreh was there, what’s going on? Can you believe it’s almost summer?”
Chavie nodded. “Right? This winter flewwww by, it’s insane.”
“Anyhow, I gotta run back to the eineklach,” Devorah said, pointing to a small crowd near the escalator, “but it’s a treat to see you.”
“Same. What a cute bunch you have there!” Chavie said.
Devorah smiled. “Who are you here with?” she asked.
“We’re here with everyone, the whole gang, baruch Hashem, we just stepped away from the commotion for a bit,” Chavie said, answering before Shaya could even process the question.
“Oh, how nice, I remember that, the Wolberg Chol Hamoed outings, of course, love it — enjoy every second,” Devorah said as she hurried off.
Shaya said nothing. There was nothing he could say. Chavie did not lie. Even when other people did, like when the police officer asked if she was in a particular hurry, she did not lie.
He pointed and said, “Hey, let’s go this way, to the maze thingie.”
She had clearly expected him to ask her about what she’d said, and, grateful that he hadn’t, she just nodded and followed him.
It was full, but — thankfully — they knew no one there, and it was too loud to speak, so they waited to pay in silence.
The man gave them each a pair of gloves, explaining that they would end up touching the glass again and again even though they wouldn’t realize it until they felt it.
“That’s the challenge here, you’ll have no idea what’s real, what’s clear, what’s open, and what’s closed. Good luck!”
He smirked as if they were heading up Mount Kilimanjaro with no supplies, then turned to the next customer.
They were on their own.
Everyone headed into the maze was frum, but there was none of the usual staring, wondering, and polite nodding, because everyone was panicked, tripping, falling, grabbing arms, and slamming hands into the mirrors again and again.
Shaya gave up any pretense of dignity as he walked directly into a mirrored wall, whacking it with his forehead. A group of bochurim noticed and laughed, and a moment later, when he found them sprawled over each other at a false corner, he winked and gave a broad smile.
They were all in this together.
Shaya was having trouble getting his bearings, and he found himself getting more and more unsettled, but Chavie was calm, taking charge.
“This way Shaya, trust me, don’t listen to them,” she nudged him toward an opening and into relative safety.
She was beaming now, and when she saw a couple that was at least 20 years younger than them, she passed them with a sense of purpose. “Let’s go, follow me, under this arch,” she said, her fingers extended.
She slid through, but he bumped his shin into what appeared to be thin air.
He watched his wife take a teenage girl by the arm and gently lead her through a wall that was really just an array of lights and mist.
He remembered something, then, that his father had told him.
His father wasn’t much of an advice-giver, a hardworking diamond cutter who spoke about the parshah, the weather, a bit of politics, and some Yankees.
But a few days before Shaya’s chasunah, they had gone together to the beis hakevaros in Queens to invite the deceased grandparents, and Shaya had been talking excitedly about how capable, efficient, and calm his kallah was.
“I could never handle one of those noisy girls, you know, all over the place, with forceful opinions on every subject,” Shaya said, and his father had turned to look at him then.
“What?” Shaya asked, but his father hadn’t answered.
Five minutes later, after the traffic had come and gone, he spoke.
“She’s a good girl, your Chavie, and she’ll be a good wife to you, b’ezras Hashem, but she can use a bit of simchas hachayim, you know?”
Shaya had been caught off guard by this, so he didn’t protest what he saw as an affront to his kallah.
“She hasn’t had it easy — her father is gone, no sisters — it’s natural that she comes across as a bit reserved, not a bad thing, and maybe it’s even a good thing.”
“Why is it a good thing?” Shaya asked.
Standing in the Mirror Maze and watching his wife face a corridor with endless reflections of herself, a hundred thousand smiling Chavies, he could almost smell the sun-drenched vinyl seat and his father’s pipe in the old Impala.
“It is a good thing,” his father had said, looking straight ahead, “because one of the powers a person doesn’t even realize they have is the ability to make another person happy. It takes work, Shaya, it’s not like pressing a button or playing loud music” — his father had pointed his pipe at the radio as he said this.
“It’s your job, to make her smile, to bring her happiness, and a girl like this, she can use it. You’ll know what you have to do. It’s not as easy as you think, but it’s also not so hard.”
That was the extent of Heshy Wolberg’s speech, and a moment later he was on to how the Yankees weren’t the same team without Thurmon Munson, and Nettles was past his prime, and everything was normal again.
Sometimes, you have to make issues out of things.
The light was overwhelming and the images of his own baffled face gave Shaya a small jolt of panic, but he let Chavie guide him, watched her direct him to safety as he cautiously walked behind her, bent over, nearly on all fours, like a jungle animal in a white dress shirt and tie.
It felt like three hours, but when they came out, it wasn’t even one o’clock, just under an hour since they had entered the maze.
The manager looked up and saluted them.
“You know what’s fascinating about this maze?” he said. “If you go in alone, you’re disoriented the whole time, but when you go with someone else, it’s much easier, you have that point of focus, you know?”
“Oh, I know,” Shaya said dramatically, and everyone laughed, even the people around them who they didn’t know, which would normally make Chavie nervous but didn’t.
They reemerged into the mall, looking this way and that, and Shaya was about to suggest they sit for a few minutes when Chavie’s shoulders straightened.
“You know who that is?” she murmured to Shaya. “They’re mechutanim with your sister Shaindy, the Nulmans from Far Rockaway.”
Shaya was a bit unsettled, feeling slightly queasy from an hour of tripping and stumbling, but he smiled politely as the mechutanim came over, another normal couple surrounded by children and eineklach.
Aryeh Nulman was warm, introducing his son and daughter-in-law who lived in California, some sort of kiruv kollel, and making a joke about how he would have gone into kiruv himself if they’d been giving gigs like that back in the day.
Shaya smiled and said he was sure there was more than enough work, and it wasn’t all a vacation, and then Malka Nulman asked which children they were there with.
Chavie shrugged. “No children,” she said airily, “it’s just me and Shaya this time.”
Malka Nulman’s eyes opened wide and she said, “Oh, so nice,” and it was clear that she was confused by the answer, so Chavie repeated it.
“Yup, it’s just us.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)
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