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Closed Book

I wanted to build a Torah home, but my husband never learns

As told to Lori Holzman Schwartz

Shavuos night my house looks like every other Jewish home — at least at first. I bentsh licht while the sun is still setting in the night sky, seven candles — one for each member of our family — reflected in the windowpane, the porcelain plates set out on the white tablecloth, a beautiful bouquet of roses on the table, the children all bathed and clean in their Yuntiff clothes. “Everything looks wonderful,” my husband compliments me with a smile. I smile back at him, then he gives each child a kiss on the head before he sets out for shul. Later, when he gets home, he makes Kiddush, and we wash and eat the beautiful seudah I prepared. It’s only much later, after the meal is over, after the children have been put to bed, when the stars light up the night sky, that the difference between our family and the others will emerge.

Because while the other husbands are wishing their wives a “good Yuntiff” and trekking back to shul for a long night of learning, I know there’s a good chance my husband will have fallen asleep already, without having even opened a sefer.

I come from a typical Brooklyn family. I’m the youngest of seven. My parents both worked hard, my mother as a school secretary, my father as an insurance broker. Our home was a happy, happening place, with siblings and grandchildren coming and going, and my parents loved spending time with all of us. But no matter what was going on in the house, every night my father would retreat to his study. Eight to ten was his learning time, and it was sacred. There was no disturbing him then.

I went to same Bais Yaakov as my sisters, and then I spent a year in seminary in Yerushalayim. When I came back, I knew exactly what I wanted in a husband. Smart, kind, funny — a man like my father; an equal partner in supporting the household, and one who would make time for learning every day.

I started dating right away, but the first three guys I met went nowhere; we just didn’t have anything to talk about.

I had just turned 20 and started college when a family friend redt Menashe. He came from a similar background, went to typical yeshivos, and had even started his own business. His references were glowing. Everyone talked about how nice he was, a true baal chesed, always willing to help someone in need. He checked all the boxes; he even made time to learn b’chavrusa every night. In my family we never bought into the notion of looking for the “top boy.” It was enough that someone’s heart was in the right place, and they made time to be kovei’a ittim.

Menashe came to my house and sat down with my parents for a few minutes before our first date. My father gave me a thumbs-up when I came out to meet him. Both my parents thought he was very personable.

I was also immediately impressed. Menashe was handsome, he carried himself well, and he had a quick smile. Plus, I liked his tie.

“I heard the mothers of girls just put a plastic cake on the table since none of the guys eat it anyway,” Menashe told me on the way to the car. “So I figured I’d try the cake your mother put out just to see if it was real.”

“Was it?” I joked.

“Nah, I chipped a tooth. I’m gonna have to go to the dentist tomorrow.”

I laughed. “I heard you had a good sense of humor.”

“Don’t believe it.” He winked. “All my references are on my payroll.”

Menashe opened the car door for me and drove to a milchig restaurant. All my other first dates had been in hotel lobbies, and I liked that he was doing something a little different.

As we dated longer, and I got to know Menashe better, I asked him about his learning. He’d never mentioned it, and when I thought of my father, I couldn’t understand how something so important would never come into conversation.

“I go to a regular shiur,” Menashe told me, “And I’ve been learning with my friend Benjy for years. He’s a great guy, but he sure caused trouble back in our yeshivah days.”

Menashe kept me in stitches as he regaled me with funny stories from his childhood. He and Benjy had been pranksters, but the jokes were harmless — even their rebbeim would laugh along. Menashe once brought a doll that looked just like him to sit in his chair over midwinter, joking with the rebbi that it was because he couldn’t bear to be away from him for even a week. Before Pesach, he came in with a frog for Makkas Tzefardei’a.

Still, despite his mischievous past, I saw a future with Menashe. He’d grown into a capable man, he’d started his own business at 20, manufacturing items in China and selling them on Amazon. At 23, his income shocked his parents, and it would enable us to live comfortably. Menashe kept me laughing, but our dates weren’t all frivolous. We spoke about the future and the kind of family we wanted to raise. We talked about making time for Torah. At the time, I really thought our values aligned. When we decided to get engaged, everyone agreed it was a perfect shidduch.

I was in a state of newlywed bliss when we first got married. We’d stay up late at night talking. We’d go for long Shabbos walks together. Menashe would come home from work and surprise me with jewelry or pocketbooks he had bought from street vendors. Nothing expensive, just little things to show he was thinking about me.

It was only after the newlywed phase wore off that I started to realize that I’d never seen my husband learning. On Shabbos, my father would sit in his chair and learn for hours. Menashe, on the other hand, would spend a long time schmoozing with our Shabbos guests, and after they left, he’d sit in his recliner and read the jokes in the Jewish papers for a bit. Before long, his eyelids would start to flutter, and he’d make his way to bed, falling asleep for a marathon-long Shabbos nap.

“Why don’t you go to the rav’s shiur?” I asked him one Shabbos afternoon.

“Maybe next week.” He yawned.

I rolled my eyes. “You’re just saying that. You never go.”

“I work hard all week.” He shrugged. “Shabbos is the day of rest, after all.”

He did learn with Benjy every night, but once, they learned at home, and I walked in on them after an outing with some friends. Their seforim were on the table unopened. Menashe and his friend were playing video games.

After Benjy left, I walked over to him with my lips pursed. “Why were you and Benjy playing video games?”

“We finished learning, and we were relaxing. Chill out, it’s no big deal.”

I frowned. It might have been no big deal if it was just once, but I couldn’t hold back. “In all the time we’ve been married I don’t think I’ve ever seen you open a sefer.”

Menashe crossed his arms. “I learn. I have a chavrusa. I go to shiurim.”

“Yeah, right.” I snorted.

“Can you get off my case?” my husband snapped. “I go to shul. I work hard. I want a wife, not a mashgiach.”

I was really hurt by Menashe’s sharp tone, and confused by what was going on. I thought about telling my parents, but my kallah teacher had warned me never to share my problems with my parents or friends. She said that getting family involved is just adding fuel to the fire — everyone takes sides and makes it so much worse.

Then I found out I was expecting our first child. At the same time, Menashe and I started to have more fights about his learning, or lack of it. I loved Menashe, but I was having trouble respecting him. He didn’t fit the image in my mind of the man I thought I’d marry, a man who would carry the Yiddishkeit in a home. Menashe could feel my contempt, and this led to more arguments. And because of my kallah teacher’s advice, I felt like I didn’t have anyone to confide in.

Finally, I told Menashe I thought we should go to a marriage therapist.

“We have a good marriage,” Menashe said. “Everyone fights sometimes. We’re not about to get divorced. What do we need a marriage therapist for?”

“Just to work out a few issues,” I told him.

Reluctantly, he agreed to go. The therapist asked a lot of probing questions. It took quite a few sessions for Menashe to get vulnerable, but the therapist was very kind and nonjudgmental. During one session, Menashe started talking about his childhood.

“I hated school,” he admitted. “I’d just sit in class and daydream. I had no idea what was going on, I just thought I was stupid.”

“You never told me that,” I said, stunned.

“Mmmm, that must have been so hard,” the therapist said.

“I got my dyslexia diagnosis in fourth grade,” Menashe said. “Then I got private tutoring. I learned how to read English, and enough Hebrew to lein for my bar mitzvah.”

“Wow, you accomplished so much despite your learning disability!” the therapist exclaimed. “You must be a very tenacious person.”

Menashe sighed. “But I never learned to read Gemara, it was just too hard to add that to the mix. Instead, I’d try to memorize what my rebbi said, or I’d peek into ArtScroll before class. So I got through school, but I always felt like a fraud.”

Menashe told us all the tricks he used in yeshivah, like getting his chavrusa to read the Gemara, or finding a chavrusa who wasn’t so serious about learning.

“Trying to learn just made me feel bad about myself. When I started working it felt great. I realized I wasn’t stupid. I was just good at other things.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this when we were dating?” I asked him in the therapist’s office. “I feel tricked.”

Menashe shrugged. “I just got used to hiding it. I wanted a normal girl. I didn’t want to settle for someone who would accept a nebach with a learning disability. And I’m a good husband,” he added somewhat defensively.

I burst into tears. I didn’t have any words in the therapist’s office, but I felt so angry. I felt like Menashe had deceived me and my family for his own selfish reasons.

But he was a good husband, and three months after that fateful therapy session, when our baby boy, Chaim, was born, Menashe proved to be a wonderful father. I’d wake up in the morning and find that Menashe had let me sleep in. He’d be feeding Chaim, the baby’s little hands wrapped around the bottle, my husband looking down at my son with love in his eyes. Slowly, my anger started to ebb, but the feelings of pain and disappointment wouldn’t go away so fast.

As time went on, Menashe’s business expanded, and he became known as a big baal tzedakah. One day, I was in the grocery store, and an elderly woman hobbled over to me and said, “You should know your husband is such a tzaddik. I was struggling to pay the rent one month, and he took care of it. I don’t even know how he knew about it. The only person I ever told was the rav.”

Menashe also helped almanos and others in the community who were struggling. One widow stopped me on the street. “I have to tell you, when my husband passed away, I said, ‘Now there’s no one to walk my son to shul. What will become of him?’ Then one Friday night your husband knocks on the door. You should see how my boy’s eyes light up when your husband comes to take him.”

“Menashe has a heart of gold,” the rav told me at a kiddush one Shabbos afternoon.

As the years go by, I’ve come to accept Menashe just the way he is. I recognize that he’s overcome a lot to get to where he is. Now, I not only love Menashe, I’ve also come to respect him for all that he’s accomplished. He’s hardworking, capable, kind, and generous. I know I have a lot to be grateful for.

But every Shavuos, as I clean up the evening meal, I glance at all the untouched seforim on the bookshelf and my heart aches. I wouldn’t trade Menashe for anyone in the world, but once a year I allow myself to mourn what I thought I’d have.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 897)

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