Her husband was the mashgiach; she felt like the rebellious student
"Rebbetzin, these cookies are sick!”
Yonina is about to burst out laughing at Yitz’s exuberance over her perfectly ordinary chocolate-chip sticks, but she lassoes it in when she catches sight of Yisrael Moshe’s face.
Her husband gives her A Look. There she goes again, reprimanded by the mashgiach. They may call her Rebbetzin, but it seems that with her husband, she’ll always feel like a contrite student.
She tries to smile at Yitz, but realizes her face is now contorted into a grimace. Sorta like Yisrael Moshe’s, actually.
She watches her husband as he deliberately coughs, then raises an eyebrow in Yitz’s direction. He’s stroking his beard, ever the wise mashgiach.
Yonina looks around the table, and although all the guys are taking it in, she feels like gagging at the performance.
Yitz begrudgingly diverts his rapt attention from the cookie and meets his rebbi’s eyes.
“What?” Thank G-d it’s Yitz; he knows exactly how to respond to her husband’s intensity. “C’mon, Rebbi, they are sick!”
“I didn’t notice cookies could run a fever.” Yisrael Moshe’s dry humor is met with just a crack of a smile. Mussar noted.
Seriously? Yonina abruptly stands up, her chair scratching the wooden floorboards. Everyone looks up.
She smiles sheepishly, excuses herself: “I’ll be right back with some more of those sick cookies.”
The boys snicker, and Yisrael Moshe just shakes his head. The mashgiach is disappointed in her, again. She gnaws the inside of her lip, feels her heart tighten. Then she mirrors her husband’s motion, shaking her own head. She can’t help but feel disappointed in herself, as well.
“Why, Yonina?” They’re at their favorite frozen yogurt place for their weekly date. It’s off the beaten path, one of the few places where Yisrael Moshe will actually sit down to eat.
Yonina had expected Yisrael Moshe’s rant. She’d almost feigned a stomachache, but knew she’d be called out.
Yonina pushes her spoon against the edge of the Styrofoam, begins chipping at it. She’s back in high school, being reprimanded for the length of her skirt.
Argh, this conversation. Don’t want to, don’t want to, don’t want to.
And yet, she knows this isn’t the same, she knows her husband is coming from a different place entirely. But still... The-16-year-old inside of her wins.
“What is the big deal about using the word ‘sick,’ please tell me?”
“Nins, call the cookies whatever you want — sick, ill, feverish, Covid-infected…”
She has to smile. She knows she’s being difficult, she hates herself for being difficult, and somehow, he finds a way to break through her theatrics.
“That’s not what I’m referring to, and you know it,” he says. “But when I’m trying to guide these boys, I need your support, and sometimes it just feels…”
He exhales. She plays with the mountain of snow on the table, making patterns of the discarded Styrofoam.
Yisrael Moshe takes a long sip of his water.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be harsh with you. I don’t know. I just don’t know.” She hates the desperation, the floundering, in his voice. Why does she do this?
She shrugs, continues staring at the busboy cleaning the next table over.
He looks familiar, could probably do well in their yeshivah. The problem is that he’d never get past the threshold, he’d ruled that out by working here. Yonina considers. She’d had a stint waitressing in high school. Yisrael Moshe never had any such phase. He’d taken to learning as soon as he came to Israel after high school; his struggles were making sure he didn’t burn out from learning too many hours.
She focuses on Yisrael Moshe. Right now, he deserves an apology. She’d been rude and had crossed a line.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t be so passive-aggressive. That comment wasn’t okay.”
Generally, he would take it at face value. This time, his expression is quintessential mashgiach: eyes deep and piercing, lips set in a straight line, no way to tell if he’s pleased or disappointed.
He isn’t buying the words that sound rehearsed.
“Yonina, I think—”
They turn their heads in unison toward the street, and time slows as they brace themselves for an echo of the inevitable crash. When it comes, it isn’t as loud as they’d expected, but the crunch of metal causes them both to run toward the sound.
It had to have been one of the talmidim. As unofficial Tatty and Mommy, it seems they’re always in the wrong place at the right time to bail their boys out of trouble.
Blessedly, it is only a minor fender-bender, and Doni had collided with nothing more than a stop sign. With no previous record, he’d been let off with a sharp reprimand and instructions to learn the difference between the brake and the gas pedal in an empty parking lot.
“You’re coming home with us tonight,” Yonina asserts with little preamble.
Doni nods miserably. “I assume everyone in the dorm is already hocking about what happened. Is it all over Yeshiva World?” He lowers his eyes.
Yisrael Moshe swings an arm around Doni. “It’s going to be okay.”
Doni leans into the trunk, grabs a bag of stuff from the car. “Thanks, I need the break.”
They enter the house, and once Doni is settled in their guestroom, Yonina busies herself in the kitchen putting together a plate of desserts.
“Now do you see why I have such issues with the boys borrowing our van?”
She flushes. There it is, that same gut-instinct defensiveness filling her lungs, as familiar as air. She swallows, hard.
“Accidents happen, Yonina, we saw it ourselves tonight. We’re lucky that at least it wasn’t ours this time.”
Yonina mechanically nods her agreement, turns her back and begins pulling cookies, cakes, and pastries out of the freezer.
“In general, boys borrowing our car… especially when many of them don’t even have their license yet… I know, I know, you did this as a kid and are none the worse for wear. But Yonina, we can’t make allowances like that.”
“Can we not discuss this right now?” She continues surveying the shelves, knows she’ll regret it come Shabbos, when there’s nothing left to serve for dessert. But this way she can keep doggedly facing away from her husband.
“When will we have this conversation, Yonina?”
Yonina shrugs as she inspects a foil-wrapped package of brownies.
He sighs, a bone-weary sigh. “Yonina, having an ‘anything goes’ policy is no way to run an institution.”
She plays deaf, continues staring intently into the freezer, at all the things she’s never noticed. The sticky puddles and spills run into one another, a canvas of haphazard rivers. Maybe Yisrael Moshe is right: a little bit of negligence goes a long way.
By the time she feels grounded enough to turn around, she faces an empty kitchen.
The smell hits her first. She knows that scent. As a teen, when Yonina had met up with an unfamiliar crowd one Motzaei Shabbos in the park, she’d wondered why they all smelled of an off-brand air freshener: sickeningly sweet, an odd, herbal trace. It had been a friend who’d enlightened her.
“Knock, knock,” she calls out.
“Just a sec…” She hears the scuffle of objects, footsteps, a window opening, the fan turning on.
Yonina’s heart thrums in her ears as Doni opens the door a crack. A wave of cold hits her, and she feels her nose tingling; she wishes it was only a result of the frigid air blowing in from his window.
He waits for her to speak, then fills the silence that greets him.
“Oh, thanks so much, wow, these look delicious.” He reaches toward the plate of baked goods. “You really know how to make us bochurim feel at home. But this, this is like, a lot, I don’t know if I’ll be able to eat all this.” His babbling fills the empty void as Yonina is shocked into silence. This can’t be happening.
Finally, her vocal cords manage to kick in. “Sure thing, enjoy!”
Doni’s still standing there, shifting his body weight from foot to foot, studying the plate of treats.
He lifts his eyes to meet hers. Is that guilt?
“Look, if there’s anything you need to discuss, you know you can always talk to me or the mashgiach, right?”
There’s a flash of a crease between his eyebrows.
“Yeah, I do, thanks a mil. I think I’m just gonna go to bed, I’m ready to crash, it’s been a long night….”
This time, he steps back, and firmly closes the door.
Even with the door now closed, Yonina still smells the distinct scent of pot.
It was the mashgiach who discovered the ziplock bag the morning after Doni’s departure. It was his day off, when he cordoned himself in the guest room to learn in silence. He noticed leftover cookie crumbs on the duvet cover, Isabella wasn’t supposed to come until Thursday, and he decided to surprise Yonina by changing the linen.
As Yisrael Moshe had reached back for the fitted sheet, he’d felt his hand brush against something pressed between the bedframe and the wall. He wriggled it out, blinked. Even he realized this wasn’t oregano.
“Yonina, did you know?”
She hears his voice dragging her toward the room. She dithers, that swing of the seesaw, wanting to defend the boys. To defend herself. She feels nauseous with the need to rush in and counteract.
“I suspected…. I smelled something….”
He points an accusing finger at the bag of marijuana sitting innocently on the desk.
“That is grounds for immediate expulsion.” He crumples it into the corner, as if the bag itself could poison him.
Gosh, it’s just weed, it’s not like it’s going to kill you. The voice in Yonina’s head is brash, attitude spiking each word. It sounds achingly familiar, that younger voice.
She hates it. It keeps getting in the way of how she actually wants to view her husband, messing up who she is today and how she knows she should be.
“How could you not have told me if you knew?” He’s pacing back and forth, tugging furiously at his beard. She wants him to lower his hand, have him sit down next to her, to talk as equals. She bows her head, feels she is back in high school again.
“We have a no-tolerance policy! This is against the yeshivah’s rules!!”
“Against your rules. The yeshivah never had that extreme policy in place until you were hired five years ago!”
“And I implemented that rule for a reason, Nins. Not to punish them… or you. Can you please, please try to look at this objectively?”
Yonina looks up, gathers a throw pillow into her arms for support. “Forget punishment, I’m just talking about rules, period. People aren’t robots, Yisrael Moshe, a million no’s just turns people off. There are enough rules in their lives, enough ridiculous standards and expectations… They’re kids. If you don’t give them any breathing space, you’re going to suffocate them.”
She feels like all the air has left the room. She looks up, and all she sees is a film of disappointment.
It hurts too much to stay with her husband’s pain, the pain her words have caused him.
So Yonina does what she always does: flees.
She ends up at her favorite haunt: Julie’s Gym. Here, she can be just another sweaty woman; not a rebbetzin, not a wife, not a “talmidah.” Just like everyone else in the spin class, she’s attempting nothing more complicated than beating a score.
As she nears her bike, she notices her friend Chaia, nods hello. She doesn’t want to talk to anyone, she doesn’t want to do the whole chitchat thing. Her head hurts too much to think right now; all she craves is the simple repetition, the challenge of the movements, being told what to do.
There’s a Peloton bike in the house collecting dust. Yisrael Moshe had bought it for her as a surprise. She likes it, and does her best to use it — she knows it had cost an arm and a leg, and she wants to justify the purchase.
But she has a strong suspicion that he only bought it because he wants Yonina to work out more at home. It’s so him to be against an all-women’s gym, to have some strong shitah about the tumah polluting the place because of the wall-to-wall televisions and the music blasting.
Not that she doesn’t agree, she also doesn’t love the shows being broadcast, but, but, but…
She pushes the thoughts down as she hears Julie’s voice amplified by her mic: “Ladies, mount your bikes.”
The class is over, Julie is cooing her praise, Great job, ladies, you worked hard today, good for you, don’t you feel great?
No, actually. Her calves are burning and she feels like her chest is about to explode, but at least those niggling thoughts have calmed down.
Yonina is walking into the changing room, sweaty and panting, when she sees the side profile. The tiny body, the perfect nose, the gorgeous blonde hair (now just the ponytail sticking out, a baseball cap pulled over it). She has to double-check; are her eyes tricking her? It has been a while….
“Nikki?” she says tentatively.
The blonde woman turns, and immediately, they’re back in high school. Nikki hasn’t changed a bit. (Botox? Yonina wonders fleetingly.)
Yonina nods, kicks herself for calling attention to herself. Of all places, bumping into Nikki here, looking like this: her flouncy skirt over her sweatpants, the old, ratty green snood that her kids say looks like broccoli. How frumpy can she get?
Somehow, even in the gym, Nikki looks trendy and gorgeous.
“Oh. My. Gawd!” Nikki had always had a heavy accent, but it seems that since moving out of town, it’s grown even more pronounced. “How many years has it been? Gosh, the last time I saw you was the last day I was a high school senior! And you were just a junior back then!”
She’s impressed Nikki remembers what grade she was in. Obviously Yonina would remember Nikki; she was the school queen, the GO president, the “senior kallah”— meaning, she married her high school sweetheart right after graduating.
“I didn’t even know you live here! And to think we both ended up here of all places! We’re not in New York anymore, huh?” Her voice is starting to grate on Yonina.
Yonina bends into herself, willing the conversation to end, wondering what Nikki’s thinking about her transformation. Weren’t you cool in high school? What happened to you?
“Yup, yup… well, I better…”
“What’s your married name?” Nikki is going full-speed ahead, intent on continuing the conversation.
“Gordstein, hmm, that name rings… wait, Gordstein? As in, Rabbi? Are you related? Wait, wait, is that your husband?”
Yonina is confused; why would Nikki Rosenblum know Yisrael Moshe? The families clearly travel in different circles. Even in this small, not-New York city there’s a clear demarcation between the Modern Orthodox and more yeshivish communities.
“One and the same.”
“Oh. My. Gawd. Your husband is an angel.”
Yonina gives a bemused, slow nod, waits for Nikki to continue.
“Listen, my son Koby, he’s a great kid…”
Now it’s Yonina’s turn to gawk. “Koby? Koby Rosenblum? He’s your son?”
Nikki smirks. “Guilty as charged.”
Koby. Yaakov Dov ben Nechama Sarah. Koby ben Nikki. Wow. Wow, wow, wow.
“So, y’know, he went through his phase, wanted something a little different for high school. And we obviously said no way, you’re not going to the yeshivish place.”
As Nikki speaks, Yonina superimposes the image of Koby, the discussions she had with her husband over one of his very first talmidim.
Yisrael Moshe had found out that Koby was working in a pizza store in the evenings to earn some cash. Yisrael Moshe had been livid; one of our boys? Don’t want to join optional night seder? Fine. BBQ’s, great. Basketball and jogging, wonderful. But working? In a pizza store? The type of kids who hung out there were a bad influence. Why not a seforim shop?
Yonina had done some research, heard from other kids that Koby’s parents were opposed to the yeshivah. They agreed to cover the basics of tuition, but drew the line at extras. So, on his own, Koby worked to cover the trips and extracurriculars and going out for burgers with the guys.
She’d gone to bat for that kid, convinced Yisrael Moshe that Koby was doing a good thing by working. And now to find out that this is Nikki’s son….
“Anywaaays, turns out, from all my kids, he’s the most respectful, a sweet, great kid. You know he’s learning in Israel now, and I tell you, flipping out just isn’t as awful as everyone makes it out to be.”
Nikki laughs, and Yonina is left shaking her head in amazement.
Yonina’s still mulling over the conversation with Nikki in her head when she pulls in to the driveway. She’d been right that time, hadn’t she? Koby had stayed in the yeshivah, because of her input, and he’d done amazingly well. Despite his weak background, he quickly advanced to the top shiur. And soon enough, his parents (Nikki!) had gotten on board, paying full tuition and then some.
What a small, small world. What a well-orchestrated world, she hears Yisrael Moshe’s voice saying. She smiles, then frowns, remembering she’s still upset with him.
Swinging her gym bag over her shoulder, she enters through the side door, dumps her stuff near the Peloton squatting in the corner. She glares at it.
Her husband enters, attempts a smile. “Can I join you in here?” Without waiting for an answer, he jumps on the bike, runs lazy circles. It looks all wrong.
He goes for neutral: “How was the class?”
“Good. Nice change…” She nods toward the bike, trying to gauge his reaction. There is none. “I mean, I like it and all…”
“You don’t have to explain, Nins. It makes sense you prefer the gym.”
“And you don’t mind that I go?”
He looks at her, abruptly stopping his cycling, disbelief all over his face. “Huh? I know you like it, I get that it’s a different experience. If it works for you, and you’re happy, I’m happy.”
He picks up speed. “So tell me about the class.”
“It was great. You’ll never guess who I bumped into… Koby Rosenblum’s mother! Actually, I discovered I know her from high school. Isn’t that funny?”
“Koby Rosenblum, wow, what a great kid. He’s shteiging hard in Eretz Yisrael.”
“Yeah… yeah, he is.”
Silence fills the space, the Peloton’s soft clinking studding the quiet.
“You did great with him.”
Yonina absorbs the compliment, then shrugs. She really can’t take all the credit.
“You did great with him. You worked with him, you showed him you accepted him.” She’s thinking of all the late-night conversations her husband had with Koby. That he has with all the bochurim. The sense of appreciation that goes both ways; there’s a reason they’re able to so readily accept her husband’s mussar.
His voice cuts into her reverie. “We make a great team, you know that?”
Yonina raises an eyebrow. “Really? Sometimes it feels we’re on opposite teams. With the pot…”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Yisrael Moshe jumps off the bike, holding up his hands as if warding off an attack.
“Wait, let me finish.” She has to say this. “I just… earlier today, I felt so attacked. I didn’t say I knew about the pot, I said I suspected.” Her voice is small.
“Yonina.” He tilts his head forward so he’s looking directly at her. “Yonina, this isn’t you versus me. This is us, doing our best to help these kids.”
“So why is it that whenever I say anything, it’s like I’m about to get kicked out of class? And I know you don’t like it, I know you never would’ve done the things I experimented with in high school…” Her instinct is to run away from this discomfort; instead, she takes her husband’s place at the Peloton, turns it on. The mechanical voice floods the room.
“Yonina.” His voice is firm, kind. “Can we please try to differentiate between then and now? It was never about your past. You’re way more hung up about it than I am.”
She’s playing with the handle, her thumb rubbing against the ridges. She’s scared to look him in the eye.
Yisrael Moshe keeps talking.
“When we were dating, I was so impressed by what you gave up. I don’t know if I could’ve done that under the same circumstances.”
“Really?” She wants his approval so desperately it scares her.
He nods, leaving no room for doubt. “And I do value your input, it was great what you did for Koby.” He takes a deep breath, steadies himself. “But we’re five years past that. And right now, we’re dealing with something far more severe than a moonlighting job.”
“You’re right,” she says, but her voice betrays her.
“Something’s bothering you.”
“I get these kids. I need to be their advocate.”
“As long as you’re speaking for them, and not from your own stuff, I’m all ears.”
“So shoot. But off the bike. Let’s talk this through.”
She descends, feels the pieces clicking together in her mind like a puzzle. The words spill out, unchecked, genuine. “All right, so you respect me, right?”
“And that feels great, really. Don’t you think you owe that same respect to your talmidim? Because Yisrael Moshe — they struggle with things we could never have dreamed of. We didn’t grow up with smartphones and Netflix and apps.” She has his full attention, and she’s emboldened to keep going.
“Their challenges aren’t ours, their world isn’t the world we were raised in. I know you think you get them — you do get them, don’t get me wrong, that’s why you’re so good at what you do.” She can say that firmly, now; with clarity, she can review the thousands of past interactions where the boys felt accepted — even of the boundaries. Maybe because of the boundaries.
“But maybe there’s one thing lacking. Yisrael Moshe, you don’t respect them. They have such huge challenges, and if everything’s so black and white, right or wrong, they sense that.”
“You’re saying good, you’re saying good.”
She smiles at his yeshivish lingo, secretly flooded with relief.
Yonina continues, passion taking on a pleading tone. “You think they don’t know how you view pot? You don’t have to verbalize it, it’s clear. You think they’re just lazy dope heads with no motivation, right? Where’s the compassion there? Maybe they need an escape. Maybe they’re in pain.”
He looks at her, thinking.
A voice cuts through the silence. “Taaaatty! Doni from the yeshivah is here!”
Yonina looks up, alarmed.
“Um, should I come when you speak to Doni?”
Yisrael Moshe straightens himself, shakes his head. “Don’t worry,” he says, extending his fingers, then curling them under his palm, “I’m retracting my claws.”
She follows closely behind him, then heads toward the fridge to pull out drinks and cakes. After five years, she’s learning her role as the Rebbetzin. And after 15 years, she’s learning her role as a wife.
“I’m glad we had this conversation,” Yisrael Moshe says as he takes the offerings from her hands. “Thank you… for everything.”
The boys are piled in for Thursday night cholent.
Yonina is busy refilling the bowls when she hears Yitz bellowing: “Rebbetzin, this week’s food is insane!”
She readies herself for Yisrael Moshe’s comment, nods at him in support, but instead of looking at Yitz, the mashgiach raises his eyes to Yonina, says nothing.
They both look at Yitz simultaneously, who seems to redden. “But Rebbi — this actually is like outside the realm of sanity. Have you tasted the Rebbetzin’s cooking?”
Yisrael Moshe laughs. “You know what, Yitz? I have to agree. Well beyond the realm of sanity.” Yonina feels her lungs expand. The boys whoop in laughter, reaching in and fighting over seconds.
One boy, no older than 15, nudges the other to speak up. “Hey, Rebbetzin,” his friend calls, “is it true that there’ll be no more carjackings?”
“Hate to confirm the rumor, but the mashgiach and I decided the family car remains firmly in our territory. Sorry boys.”
Dramatic moans of frustration, mutters of seriously, how will I learn how to drive?
Yonina takes in the scene, smiling, her eyes searching for someone in the crowd.
She hadn’t had the chance to find out how her husband’s conversation with Doni had gone, and had assumed he was given the boot. But maybe, maybe…?
Just then the door opens, and a few latecomers straggle in. Doni.
She and Yisrael Moshe notice him in unison, and then Yisrael Moshe catches her gaze. He rises from the table, ostensibly to help her in the kitchen.
“I thought you kicked Doni out?” Yonina furtively whispers.
Yisrael Moshe just smiles as he grabs a pitcher of ice.
“A wise woman taught me some valuable things. And I think my talmidim have some valuable things to teach me, too.
“We spoke, it was good. You were right, I can’t view them one-dimensionally. It’s more complex for them — at least the guys in our yeshivah.” He’s joking, then grows serious. “There’s a lot of stuff Doni’s carrying around, lots of perfectionism, fear of failure… The accident just brought everything to the fore.”
“Wow. It’s amazing he was able to share all that with you. So, does this mean from now on in this type of situation, you might look away—” She catches the excitement in her own voice, and Yisrael Moshe laughs.
“Sorry, sorry! Let me try that again. I totally get the no-marijuana policy. I back you on that fully and firmly. I do appreciate those lines you make so clear to the boys, I can see how they help them grow — in learning and as people.”
He smiles. “Okay, Yonina.” He puts on his stern mashgiach voice, intentionally overdoing it. “So, you now see the importance of clear rules.” He smiles. “We’re both learning.”
He tucks a few bottles of soda under his arm. “Let’s bring some more of that insane cholent out to the guys.”
They walk back into the dining room, together.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 760)
Oops! We could not locate your form.