| First of All |

First of All: Chapter 9

“We have so much, Aryeh. Explain this decision to me.” But her husband of 40 years is silent


Toby Berger looks at herself in the hallway mirror, then grabs her coat, purse, and keys, and heads out.

She gets to Hava Java 15 minutes later, and sees Esther is already seated. No surprises there.

They air-kiss, and Toby settles down across from her best friend of 20 years.

“I need caffeine and I need carbs,” she says gloomily.

Esther doesn’t look too concerned. “You always need caffeine. Me, I stop caffeine by 10 a.m. or I’m up all night.”

Toby smiles. “I know, Est.”

They order — caramel macchiato for Toby, an herbal tea for Esther, and  cauliflower poppers and a beet salad to share.

“Talk to me,” Esther says, pointing her fork at Toby.

Toby makes a face. “I will. But first… coffee.” She takes a long sip and tries to compose herself.

“Esther, I’m the world’s biggest baby. No, really,” she says, as Esther tries to protest. “I had all these ideas of what the next decade would bring. And now… Aryeh was promoted. Promoted. Goodbye, lazy morning coffees on the porch, hello, late nights at the office, frenzied meetings, and harried calls about depositions and documents and who knows what else. It’s just not fair.”

She stops abruptly, suddenly afraid to meet Esther’s eye.

Esther has struggled for parnassah as long as she’s known her. Oy, what’s wrong with her, complaining about more income while Esther is still in debt over her last wedding. She really is the worst.

But Esther’s the best. She leans forward. “I’m going to blow your mind with this original advice, Tobes: Communicate with your husband. I know you’d rather just play the supportive wife, but I think you need to talk to him.”

She makes a face. “You want me to act like a grown-up? That’s just too much.”

They laugh and clink glasses.

Esther is right, of course. But why is she so nervous? Aryeh is finally home, and just sitting down to the plate she rewarmed — three times, but who’s counting — when she sits across from him.

He seems tired, very, very tired. Did he always have those creases between his eyebrows? He looks at her sideways.

“Do I have chicken marsala on my face? This is delicious, by the way.”

She laughs and then stops; the tone is too high pitched. “Nope, just wanted to run something by you.”

He puts down his fork and knife. “I’m listening.”

Oh. Gosh. This is hard. She pokes her finger through a woven placemat. “Okay, it’s not like so huge, but basically… I’m really happy you were promoted, Aryeh. Genuinely. I love seeing how much they appreciate you at Sherman and Adams. But I’m not sure how I feel about you getting so swept up in your work life just now.

“We had so many years when things needed to revolve around your schedule and your meetings and your trips, because we needed the money, you supported us all, and it was wonderful. But now, we have more than enough, Aryeh. I thought it was finally our time. I made peace with the fact that our children have all flown the coop, and have actually leaned into it. And now, I thought you and I could find ourselves again, could at long last have our Third Act. Spontaneous vacations, late afternoon walks in the park, babysitting the grandchildren, and then jetting off to Shabbos programs with wonderful food and inspiring speakers, just because we felt like it…

“We have so much, Aryeh. Explain this decision to me.”

But her husband of 40 years is silent.


I think I might actually pass out from stress. How do people do this hosting thing every week? And why is it so hot in here? I want to dab at my forehead, but my hands are elbow deep in dough.

“Mike,” I call, my voice coming out much louder than I expected. “Can you turn on the AC?”

Mike pokes his head into the kitchen, alarmed. “Bayla Berger Leiber who is always freezing wants me to turn on the AC in the winter?”

I don’t have time for banter. “Yes, please.” I soften my words with an explanation. “Between the stove, the air fryer, and the oven, it’s a sauna in here.”

Mike clicks on the AC, puts down the remote, and lifts a peeler off the table.

“Tell me what I peel, Missus, and I peel, yes?” he says in a terrible fake accent of a country I won’t even try to guess.

“Ohmygosh, yes please!”

I point with my chin at a pile of vegetables near the stove. “Those are for the soup. Do you mind?”

He rolls up his sleeves and untucks his shirt. “Not at all.”

I go back to kneading my dough, and I’m feeling very domestic and calm when I catch sight of Mike’s pile. He has peeled one zucchini and is studiously working away on a second one. I would’ve done the pile twice already.

“Wow, that is going to be the cleanest zucchini in Monsey,” I say, keeping my voice light and airy.

“You know it,” he answers winking, and resumes peeling.

Oh. It’s going to be a looong night.

We only get to sleep at around three, but I feel good. The chicken and salmon are done, the challahs are baked, the soup is cooling on the counter, and all three kugels are in the fridge. That leaves the dips, meat, cholent, veggies, dessert… I fall asleep thinking of dicing, frying, and chopping.


I want to say that the Erev Shabbos of our first time hosting guests in our married life was idyllic, music playing softly as we chatted over simmering pots. But by the time I lit candles, neither of us was talking to the other.

“Good Shabbos,” Mike snaps.

“Good Shabbos,” I answer coolly. Then we look at each other and burst out laughing.

“We might be ridiculous,” I say to him, collapsing onto the couch.

“We are definitely ridiculous,” he agrees, collapsing next to me. “But this Shabbos is going to be epic.”

I smile at him, wish him a much nicer good Shabbos as he leaves to shul (only 15 minutes late), and then pass out for 20 minutes before jumping up and hurrying to make salads before the Rosenbergs from across the street knock and Mike shows up with the three guys from his chaburah that we’re hosting.


The meal is a complete disaster. The challah is doughy and tasteless, the salmon is overdone, the kugels are runny, and the green beans need salt. And throughout it all, Mike is having the time of his life, laughing, making l’chayims, and worst of all, complimenting me loudly, and in great detail, on the terrible food, so I can’t even lie and say my chesed girl made it all or something.

But the thing that’s really getting to me is just how polished the Rosenberg family is. They’re probably younger than us, although who’s asking, and have an adorable baby girl who just lies in her bassinet and burbles like an angel. Breindy Rosenberg is sweet and nice and her sheitel looks like it would never slip backward while she’s driving. And Mr. Yehuda Rosenberg apparently had time to pick out a navy floral tie that matches his wife’s dress because he wasn’t peeling a zucchini for seven hours. And has not stained said tie yet, either.

Not that chas v’shalom I would ever compare Mike to anyone else; I dated for six years, I know what’s out there and I waited a long, long time to find Michoel Leiber. But… I’m a very polished person. Organized. Neat. Poised. Is it so wrong that those are qualities I admire?

I almost jump out of my seat as Mike’s voice, amplified by the l’chayims, booms out. “And that is why the relationship between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael is the ultimate marriage! Hey, there was shanah rishonah too, in the desert. Right, Bay?”

He smiles brightly at me and it takes everything I have in me to shake off my cringe and smile back.

be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 787)

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