“I did everything right,” she whispers at last. I believe her, I really do. Except for one giant, glaring detail: She chose to marry him
The first time one of them called me rebbetzin, I didn’t even look up.
Mainly because I’m not a rebbetzin.
Case in point, I loudly blame other people when I step on Lego, I spend way too much time on my sheitel, and I will always win at Harry Potter trivia.
Also, you know, I’m not a rebbetzin.
Akiva tried to explain to me that the guys didn’t view me as a regular 28-year-old. I was Rebbi’s wife, and therefore, I was Rebbetzin. I, in turn, tried explaining to him that they can just call me Mrs. Goldberg. We compromised, and they call me Rebbetzin.
Now, ten years later, I’ve grown into the role. I still don’t feel like a rebbetzin, but Thursday nights find me baking cookies for 70 boys and wrapping them in packs of three. We host Purim parties and spend Shabbos at the yeshivah twice a year, and even go up north with the boys for Lag B’omer.
What I don’t and won’t do is Shabbos meals. I just feel that Akiva is hardly ever home, and Shabbos is the one time we can really give the kids our all, focus on them, and just enjoy them. And if it has anything to do with the fact that the Ahavas Toras Chesed boys are a bit more colorful than your average bochur, then that’s just a fact I keep buried deep down with my “I’m obviously not a real rebbetzin” persona. Some of these boys come from difficult homes and some come from incredibly beautiful ones. But if they chose ATC, it’s because they were looking for a relaxed atmosphere and a deep sense of brotherhood.
But right now, as I look at the mascara-streaked face of the young girl in front of me who has come to seek my counsel, I feel every inch of my role, and every one of the 18 years I have on the poor thing. I also find myself studying the hairline of her wig, trying to figure out where it starts.
“And then,” she chokes out, “he said, ‘Why would I want to stay home with you when the boys are playing football tonight?’ ”
I reel back. Her husband, Shuey, is a really nice, cute ATC boy, but this is the fourth time Lani Stein has sat on my couch crying, and each time, the things she repeats from her husband make my skin crawl. Last time, there were some gems like, “Why are you always calling to find out when I’ll be home? It’s embarrassing.”
She breaks down and sobs and it’s all I can do not to fold her into a giant hug and whisper, “There, there, sweetie.”
What I do instead is pass her a box of tissues and sit with her in silence until her tears subside somewhat.
“I did everything right,” she whispers at last. I believe her, I really do. Except for one giant, glaring detail: She chose to marry him.
I dole out bowls of dulce de leche with a bit more force than necessary. A glob of ice cream flies through the air and lands with a splatter on the fleishig counter.
“Oh, that’s just wonderful,” I snap, grabbing a paper towel and scrubbing it off. A spritz of Fantastik, one more rub, and it’s fine. Even by my standards, and I sift my own flour.
I’ve actually rendered Akiva speechless. He’s just standing there with his mouth open, watching me rush around like a madwoman.
“Uh, Tehila? What’s going on?”
I plunk two partially melted bowls of ice cream onto the kitchen table and collapse into a chair. Akiva sits gingerly across from me, looking genuinely scared behind the blond beard that I’m still getting used to, five years after it joined our family.
“What is happening, Akiva, is that the Ahavas Toras Chesed boys who have graduated from our hallowed halls to other yearlong programs are riding high on clouds of confidence and enthusiasm. Clouds that we created. They’re filled with love and excitement for life, for learning, they’re so excited to jump right in, to grab the bull by the horns, to conquer their demons and fly, fly, fly all the way to the chuppah and a lifetime of bliss. You know, as long as the rest of ‘their boys’ join them.”
Akiva is looking at me like he’s never seen me before, and honestly, right now, I’m not even sure who I am. All I know is that Lani Stein crying on my couch two hours ago was the third young wife this year. The third.
And I’ve had enough.
“I hate to say it, Kivs, I really do. But these boys have no idea how to be married.”
When I check on the kids later, Yitzi and Chaim are snoring lightly and Moshe is reading under his covers with a flashlight. “Got you!” I say, tickling him until he clicks off the light and tucks it under his pillow, giggling. Next door, Sari is on the phone studying while Henny is blow-drying her hair. I blow them kisses and move on to the nursery where baby Leeba is fast asleep in her crib and Sruli has kicked the blankets off the toddler bed and is hanging half off, one arm trailing to the ground. “My funny little boy,” I whisper, scooping him back onto his mattress.
All quiet on the western front. A nice change from, “My book report is due tomorrow, and I didn’t read it yet!”
I report back to Akiva, just returned from Maariv.
“No one is having a crisis,” I say — “bli ayin hara!” I add quickly.
Akiva smirks. “Five-second rule!”
He likes to make fun of my obsessive need to say chas v’shalom and bli ayin hara and has created a five-second rule in case I forget to tack one on.
“Haha. So how was night seder?”
He takes off his jacket slowly and begins unbuttoning his cuffs, a sure sign something’s on his mind.
“I’ll tell you,” he says, “but first!” He pulls a bag of chocolate-covered almonds out of his pocket.
“Thanks,” I say smiling. I’m a lucky girl, I know that. Akiva Goldberg, second seder rebbi in ATC, is a rising star in the chinuch world, yes, but to me he’s the dependable, steady, erlicher yeshivah bochur I married 18 years ago. It’s not always easy to share him with 70 bochurim, not to mention alumni, but I try to be a big girl about it.
“So I spoke to Rav Gedalia tonight….” Akiva says after we’re settled on the couch popping almonds and drinking tea.
“And he said his wife had the same group of visitors you did. Not the same women, but the same issues. Apparently three wives of ATC alumni came to her crying that their husbands would rather spend time with the boys than evenings at home with them. When it comes to being there for coffee dates, babysitting, morning sickness, or anything that doesn’t involve the other ATC boys, most of the husbands have a hard time showing up. Apparently, some wives told the rebbetzins that between the ATC Simchas Beis Hashoeivah, Joe Bernstein’s Simchas Beis Hashoeivah, and the ATC Friday night kumzitz, they didn’t see their husbands the entire Succos.”
I’ve put down the almonds. “Akiva. That’s not okay.”
He looks at me, and suddenly, he looks older than his 40 years. “I know it’s not, Tili, but what can we do about it? ATC already offers phenomenal shidduch vaadim, Rav Gedalia, Rav Pressburg… oh, and Rav Klein!”
We both sigh in appreciation for Rav Klein’s shalom bayis classes we attended some years back. It was life-changing, and I think about his advice almost every day.
“So what is it?” I murmur to myself. What are they lacking, these earnest boys who try so hard to do their best?
I fluff a cushion between my palms and think. What if these were my kids? I’m practically old enough to be these boys’ mother. So what’s the answer? If I’m the great rebbetzin, how would I help the boys?
I’d teach them. I’d sit them down and say, “If your wife is tired, make her a tea. If your wife says, ‘I have no energy to cook,’ you happily whip up some eggs. If your wife has a toddler on her lap and the baby needs a new diaper, go change him.” And I know my kids will do all that, because they have Akiva as a father. But for all those not zocheh to be our actual children…
“Akiva,” I say slowly, “if they don’t know what they’re doing, if vaadim and hashkafah classes aren’t practical enough… then we can teach them.”
I’m preparing the kids’ lunches the next morning when Akiva gets home. “Hey Tils, I’m home. How are you? Did Ma call about the Langer vort? Because I’m not sure exac— Um, why are you staring at me?”
I think my mouth is open. “Akiva Goldberg. I am literally a bundle of nerves all night, waiting for you to come home and then you walk in and start talking about the Langer vort? What did the hanhalah say?!”
He’s amused; his mouth twitches.
“Because I thought maybe we could get a ride with— I’m kidding I’m kidding,” he says hastily, hands up in mock surrender. “So! The hanhalah, surprisingly, is on board. The rosh yeshivah is not impressed, but he agreed to let us try. Rav Gedalia likes the idea, or maybe his wife just told him she’s had enough.”
I put down the bag of pretzels I’m holding and lean against the sink, stunned. So we’re in business….
Signs go up all over ATC the next day; in the lobby, the lunchroom, the lounge.
JUST ASK: If you think you’re ready to start dating, ask your rebbi to enroll you in BOCHUR BOOT CAMP. Learn how to have the marriage you want… because your marriage needs YOU!
The simchah hall of Beis Eliyahu is cold, I shiver and pull my North Face tighter. Rav Gedalia’s wife Sarah pulls out a Tupperware of cinnamon buns, I donate my precious chocolate-covered almonds, and Chavi and Miriam, two more ATC staff wives, have juice and water. Operation Boot Camp is ready to begin.
We don’t discuss the young wives, the reason we’re here. Enough tears have been shed, now we’re all about tachlis.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” Sarah says. “Shanah rishonah: What does a new husband need to know?”
“How to make a good coffee!”
“How to do a jigsaw puzzle.”
We’re laughing but jotting it all down.
Take out the garbage gets a round of applause, and then it’s time to move on a bit. “Shabbos cooking. Wash dishes!”
“Compliments, of course.”
“And eye contact.”
I do a small drumroll on the table. “Next up… baby boot camp! Diapers, burping, and all that jazz.”
“Halevai,” Miriam sighs, and we all laugh, because her husband is a real mensch, but he’s never diapered a baby in his life.
The enrollment starts with a trickle that morphs into a gush. The pre-Pesach program is filled at maximum capacity of 20 guys, 22 years and older, ready to start dating after Yom Tov. By Tu B’Shevat, we’re ready to begin. We’ve transformed the local simchah hall into an obstacle course of marriage moments. It starts with planning dates for shanah rishonah Motzaei Shabbosim. There’s a short course on doing jigsaw puzzles and learning the perfect recipe for hot cocoa. Washing dishes, scrambling eggs, sweeping floors, a light sponja. Then there’s morning sickness, which is basically a study in being there while giving her space, and timing them on how quickly they can run to the grocery for saltines and ice cream. There are a few other points there that the rebbeim will give over delicately, and then it’s baby boot camp. Diapers, formula, burping, baths, bedtime. Then there’s cooking together, shopping together, compliments and eye contact, and giant clocks for the purpose of time management. And of course, shopping for flowers and jewelry.
We also offer refreshment incentives in the form of beef jerky from that place in Ramat Beit Shemesh that the boys love, and poppers from the local takeout.
“Most of all,” I stress to Akiva before he sets out for Day One. “Tell them to spend time together.”
I don’t think Akiva was this nervous on our wedding day. He’s sweating, his cuffs are already up, and he keeps taking deep breaths. I feel bad for him, I’m not even sure he believes in this whole thing as much as I do, but he’ll be fine.
I wave him off and go put up a challah dough. I need the zechuyos. I need to daven for the success of my boys.
Akiva walks in three hours later, glowing. “Tehila! It was… to quote the boys, ‘It was sick!’ I’m telling you, they want to know. They’re so eager, so ready, so there. And they’re quick learners!”
He flings off his hat, collapses into a chair. “Those guys did an entire border of a 1,000-piece Kosel puzzle, scrambled delicious eggs, and washed a sink of dishes each! Everyone left on a high, and yes, if any of them show up for night seder, I’ll eat my Borsalino, but hey, at least they showed up for their future marriages, right?” He stops, panting slightly, and suddenly, I don’t have much to say. All the months of planning, coordinating, getting together with the other wives, and lamenting the issues these young marriages face…. It’s suddenly real to me that these boys are going to try their best. And if Bochur Boot Camp doesn’t work, the number of broken marriages left in their wakes will only multiply.
“I’m… so glad,” I say softly. And then I excuse myself to say a few more kapitlach.
Baby boot camp is also a success (only three guys chucked their dolls across the room in frustration), as is the Shabbos cooking segment, although the first aid team had their hands full.
Shabbos is my oasis. I’m officially off rebbetzin duty, off accounting duty, and full-on mommy and wife mode. I spend most of my time either relaxing on the couch or on the floor with the kids. Henny is a doll, she decided she’s serving the meals and roped Sari into helping her, and of course, Akiva has the Goldberg menfolk in charge of cleanup. I smile at little Sruli carrying the olive dip back into the kitchen and thank them all profusely. When the meal’s over, Akiva shoos the kids into bed, and we settle at the table with tea and rugelach. “It was an interesting week,” he says, smiling tiredly. I nod and take a scalding sip. “It really was. You worked so hard.” He shrugs modestly, and I laugh, because I know he’s proud of himself.
“Do you really think it will help?” I ask suddenly, putting down my mug too hard. Tea sloshes over the side. Akiva plucks a napkin out of the holder and passes it to me. “Listen,” he says, “it definitely can’t hurt, right?”
Motzaei Shabbos, Lani Stein knocks on my door again. This time she has a suitcase with her. She doesn’t say anything, just falls into my arms, and this time I actually do hug her until her shuddering sobs slow down. And after I’ve waved her sadly into the night — she’s going to stay with her grandmother — I tell Akiva that we need to double down on the boot camp. “These guys have to know what they’re doing,” I say thickly. “They have to understand what they’re getting into. You have a wife; treasure her. Make her happy. Don’t throw away your relationship like last week’s sushi because you have something more fun or exciting happening.” I’m not even sure when I started crying but I think the waste of it all has officially broken my heart.
The boys start to get a reputation, and for once, it’s not for fighting with Arab teens Friday night. Our first group of graduates is already in shidduchim, but once the girls and their mothers started noticing the boys’ skills, word began to spread. “Chevi’s husband bleaches toilets without her asking!” “Shani came home and found the table set, with dinner on the stove!” And these magic moments are traced back to ATC. As the mothers shep nachas, the shadchanim hop on board pretty quickly.
“ATC? Is he a boot camp boy?” I start getting the question regularly.
“Yes, yes he is,” I tell Rikki Bodner’s mother.
Izzy Pearlman is one of our best boot camp graduates: He makes the fluffiest eggs, can diaper a baby while talking on the phone, washes dishes while humming, and has three perfect date nights already planned from dinner to activity. He’s also good looking, quarterback on the yeshivah football team, learns three sedorim, and beatboxes regularly in the lunchroom. After scanning Rikki’s résumé — sweet, makeup artist, half-year sem — I give the shidduch my rabbinical blessing.
Of course, I get no updates until the l’chayim, when Izzy calls to shyly tell Rebbi, “I’m getting married! Boot camp just got real!” and I actually feel like a kvelling grandmother. “We did this,” I tell Akiva, taking a bottle of Bartenura out of the fridge.
“L’chayim to Izzy and Rikki! And to boot camp!”
I clink my glass against his, he smiles widely, and I suddenly remember our own l’chayim.
“You know,” I say, wiggling my eyebrows over my glass, “when we got engaged, you didn’t know how to do any of these things. If you were in boot camp, you would have failed.”
“No,” Akiva says, grinning back. “I would have learned, like all of these other guys are learning.”
“True, true,” I murmur, suddenly distracted. Something is niggling at me, but I can’t put my finger on it.
It takes five months before I get the first phone call.
In the meantime, we’re on our fourth round of boot camp, and our boys are the most well-rounded, educated, prepared bochurim out there. Three more get engaged. We’re all flying high on the success of our absolutely insane endeavor, other yeshivos have begun to reach out to find out how they can replicate our boot camp in their programs, and then she calls.
Rikki Pearlman. I’ve spoken to the girl only once, on Zoom at her vort, as I shared all of our Izzy nachas with her. And I saw her that night, glowing, dress perfect, huge diamond ring sparkling, but the shiniest thing about Rikki Bodner was her eyes, and the way they looked at Izzy Pearlman.
“Is this… Rebbetzin Goldberg?” The voice is thin, hesitant, and so, so young. “This is Rikki Pearlman? Uh, I married Izzy Pearlman, from the yeshivah?”
“Rikki!” I say brightly as I pull a load out of the dryer. “How are you guys? How’s our favorite boot camp star?”
“Oh, he’s, uh, fine. Still very good at all the things he learned.” She swallows. “During the week, he’s, like, so busy at work. Baruch Hashem, he’s doing really well, he’s already way up there in the construction company. And he says he’ll build us a house one day, which is amazing.”
I look around at my small apartment. A house sounds nice. “Wow, Rikki, that’s wonderful. It’s so important to work at something you enjoy. And how are you two liking Marine Park?”
The line is quiet. “Uh, it’s really pretty. Like you can barely tell it’s Brooklyn. And there are ten other ATC couples here, so we do seudos and parties, but, uh, Shabbos…”
I wait, hoping she’ll finish her sentence.
“Shabbos he spends all day at kiddush club with the boys. And then he falls asleep when he gets home. And so between that and work… Rebbetzin Goldberg, why doesn’t he want to spend time with me? Didn’t he learn that at boot camp also?”
And that’s when she bursts out crying.
So it was a waste of time. All our work, the time we spent, the money we poured in. The time away from seder, the nights Akiva stumbled in, fake spit-up on his shirt, hands wrinkled from dishwashing demonstrations. It was all pointless. Nothing has changed. These boys are still being reckless, too confident, too pumped up to realize that the homes they’ve built are made of cards, that all the practical skills in the world mean nothing if you can’t see the needs of the person next to you.
“Call it off,” I say to Akiva dully when he comes home. “Just call the whole thing off.” And then I stumble to my room, crawl into bed, and stare at the wall waiting for the wallpaper to burst into flames.
Akiva comes in, tries to convince me that they just need to switch up the curriculum, maybe add a sensitivity vaad, but I’m done. I told him, way back when, I’m not a rebbetzin. I’m not made for this, I can’t watch these boys, our boys, self-destruct. It’s too hard, too painful.
I tell Sari and Henny that I don’t feel well, and they rise to the occasion magnificently.
I’m being selfish. Akiva worked harder than anyone, but I guess he has less of a hero complex than I do. He didn’t think he was fixing the universe, he just viewed boot camp as another way to prepare his boys for life.
And me? I was trying to save all the Lani Steins of the world.
Leeba’s crying is what gets me out of my funk.
“Come, bubah,” I say softly, padding out of my room and scooping her up gratefully from Henny. “Mommy is going to pull herself together and take you to the park.”
Makeup and a sheitel help me feel more human, and by the time we reach the park, I’m laughing as Sruli zooms his bimba and makes airplane noises.
I settle onto a bench next to Yaeli Farber and Shana Lefkowitz.
“Tehila Goldberg, it’s been ages! How are you?”
Do I feel like the grandmother in this park of young kollel wives? Yes, yes I do. Do I still enjoy coming and hobnobbing with the young and trendy? Also yes.
“Baruch Hashem,” I say, smiling at the other women. “How are you all doing?”
“Tired!” Yaeli says dramatically. “We had seven guys Friday night, and I still have dishes in the sink. And yes, I know it’s Wednesday and Shabbos is about to start all over again. Don’t worry, I’m having four more Shabbos day!”
I’ve had this conversation before, I know my lines. Now I’m supposed to say, “That’s so nice that works for you. We prefer to make Shabbos family time, but everyone does what’s best for them, right?” But this time, the words won’t come.
I hand Leeba a push-up yogurt and then turn to Shana instead.
“What about you? Seven guys also?”
She shakes her head ruefully. “I wish. But my sister’s in sem, so it’s a girl year for us. Five girls this Friday night, im yirtzeh Hashem. Girls are great, but nothing beats bochurim zemiros.”
“Almost makes the dishes worth it,” Yaeli says.
And I am silent.
“Um, but why?” I finally ask. “Don’t you just want peace and quiet by the time Shabbos rolls around?”
Yaeli shrugs. “Well, yeah. But I remember being a sem girl, that feeling of being homeless and cold and just wanting some homemade challah. Besides, I only wanted to marry a boy who’s learning after I saw my seminary teachers’ homes.”
“Same,” Shana says, nodding vehemently. “All those Shabbos meals brought me to where I am.”
I feel feverish, hot and cold at the same time.
“Sruli! We need to go,” I call abruptly.
I wave goodbye to the startled women and practically run home.
By Wednesday I still have no idea what the future holds for ATC boys, or what’s going to be with our boot camp, but I do know that my sheitel has never looked better. “Chaya! It’s gorgeous! These lowlights are exactly what it needed; it was totally oxidized.”
Chaya flutters her eyelashes and waves her curling iron. “I know, I know.”
I’m waving goodbye, sheitel box slung over my shoulder, when a tiny wisp of a woman slips past me with a smile. I freeze. “Mrs. Miller?”
The older woman turns around, the smile hovering on her lips. “Yes?”
“Oh my goodness, hi, I went to Orah! You were my Chumash teacher, and I did chesed at your house? I don’t know if you remember, it was a looong time ago,” I say breathlessly, feeling like I’m 18 again. “Tehila Landau? Now Goldberg.”
Mrs. Miller rocks back on her heels. “Tehila Landau? Of course I remember you! The kids absolutely adored you!”
Hmm, apparently she’s forgotten about that time the stroller rolled down that hill in Sanhedria, and I was convinced I’d killed her baby. Baruch Hashem for time fading traumatic memories.
“Wow,” I say, not moving.
She smiles at me. “And you moved to Eretz Yisrael? And lived here all this time?”
“Yes!” I say excitedly. “Because of Orah! And the chashivus Eretz Yisrael classes and panels. And all the Shabbos meals at the staff. And at you!”
And suddenly, that thing that was niggling at me bursts into clarity.
I use all of my self-control to wait until he’s actually in the front door and shrugging out of his davening jacket. Henny is playing Benny Friedman loudly in her room, and the soft crooning of “A Yid Never Breaks” fortifies me.
“Hi, Akiva,” I say, trying to sound calm and very, very regular. “How are you?”
He looks a little scared. “Hi, Tili,” he says, matching my formal tone. “I’m fine, baruch Hashem, how are you?”
I smile at this and then clear my throat. “Akiva… I think… I mean, can you? I need you to… we have to… invite the boys Friday night, okay? Four of them? Maybe five?”
Now he looks really scared.
“Tehila. Aside from some nephews and cousins, we haven’t had bochurim in ten years.”
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I know, Kivs. And that’s on me. Instead of opening our home to the boys we put so much into anyway, boys who come from pain and carry so much baggage, instead of inviting them in to see and learn from the beautiful bayis ne’eman we’ve created through hard work, siyata d’Shmaya, and tefillah… well, instead… we made a boot camp.”
I can’t remember the last time I received so many compliments.
“Knaidlach? Siiick chill!”
“This challah is insane!”
“I’m doing extra Peloton tomorrow — Rebbi, can we say that on Shabbos or it’s totally divrei chol?”
My kids keep hissing in my ears about all the strange things the bochurim are saying and doing — like hugging even though they all just came from the dorm together — but I can tell they’re enjoying the break from our regular Shabbos schedule as well. And the women in the park were right. “Kah Echsof” brings tears to my eyes, the young, earnest voices of boys losing themselves in song. There’s only one broken dish, when Shloimy Neuberg enthusiastically elbows the rice off the table. He’s mortified, but the kids think it’s hilarious, and Akiva has it cleaned up chick-chock.
“I’m so sorry, Rebbetzin. Really, so sorry. I’ll buy you a new bowl, okay?” he says, red-faced. I stare at him, mainly because a half hour has passed, and I barely remember what happened. “Shloimy, really,” I say, trying to sound as relaxed as possible, “I never even liked that bowl.”
He looks at me, then Akiva. “Rebbi?”
Akiva looks up from where he’s debating cholent techniques with the Katzenstein boy. I went to school with his aunt. “Whatever the Rebbetzin says, Shloimy.”
Shloimy looks at us, his mouth agape. “I… uh. I’ve never met anyone like you guys before.”
Which may have been the saddest thing I’ve heard since Rikki Bodner’s phone call.
Dessert is a resounding success — “This isn’t homemade, is it? Siiiick!” — and then it’s over. Our first-ever bochurim-centered Shabbos seudah.
“Rebbi?” Yaakov Levinger is shy by ATC standards, and he’s clearing his voice, obviously awkward. “Rebbi, would you want to learn together now?”
Akiva beams brightly and slaps Yaakov on the shoulder.
“Attaboy, Levinger! I would love to! But I have a previous engagement.”
He winks at me.
The boys are standing around in their coats looking at us, so Akiva says, “After the meal, the Rebbetzin and I have tea and schmooze. Best part of my week.”
And that’s how you teach boys about marriage, I think, as we wave them off into the Jerusalem night with promises to have them back. That’s how it’s done.
Not that one Shabbos seudah is going to save the marriages of careless newlyweds. But there’s really no substitute to seeing shalom bayis in action.
Trust me on this. I’m a rebbetzin.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 907)
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