"I ma who am I going to marry?”
My oldest daughter Elisheva Bulow was four years old when she asked me the question.
“When it’s time for you to get married we’ll find the right boy for you ” I assured her.
Fifteen years later Elisheva returned from seminary in Eretz Yisrael and informed me that she was ready to get married. Now it was time for me to make good on my pledge. But how on earth was I going to find my daughter a shidduch? Both my husband and I became observant in our teens but even after being part of the frum community for over 20 years we weren’t quite your typical frum family.
Unlike her brothers whose interests often ran more toward basketball than Gemara Elisheva had grown into a good frum Bais Yaakov girl the type who wouldn’t listen to Jewish music that wasn’t eidel and wouldn’t dream of watching anything that even remotely resembled a movie.
Once I showed my children a documentary movie about penguins in Antarctica. “It’s worth watching ” I told Elisheva.
“Is it a movie?” she asked. “I don’t watch movies.”
“It’s a documentary ” I replied.
“I don’t watch movies ” she repeated.
Elisheva was the frummest of all our children exemplary in her tefillah her chesed her middos. We called her “the rebbetzin.” She wanted to marry a real ben Torah who had achieved significant depth in his avodas Hashem but it was obvious to me that our family was not the right type to attract that kind of boy. It didn’t help that we lived in Denver Colorado. Nor could we offer much in the way of support as most of our income was going to tuition and we had very little in the bank.
“Go back to Eretz Yisrael for a second year ” I urged her. “This way you can find a shidduch in the context of who you are rather than in the context of our family.”
Elisheva spent the next three years in Eretz Yisrael where she worked as a dorm counselor while finishing her BA and beginning her master’s degree. A number of shidduchim were suggested for her during this time and I conscientiously checked them out and approved the ones I thought sounded promising. Elisheva went out but she hated dating. She was a no-makeup no-pretenses kind of girl and she found the shidduch process excruciatingly awkward and artificial.
When Elisheva came home after her third year in Eretz Yisrael she said to me “Ima I never want to date again. I totally trust you to find me the right boy and whoever it is I’ll marry him.”
“Sorry Elisheva ” I said. “I can’t do that for you. I’m not chassidish. All I can offer you is to look into shidduchim and vet the prospects but you have to go out for yourself and see if there’s a click.”
Elisheva went back to Eretz Yisrael at the end of that summer to finish her master’s. The day after she boarded the plane I went to a wedding where I sat next to a woman named Sari Horovitz Hoffman the mother-in-law of my friend Miriam. Mrs. Hoffman told me that she was about to be empty-nested as her oldest son was married her middle son was working in a camp for the summer before returning to Eretz Yisrael for his fifth year there and her youngest was about to go off to yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael as well. “Now I can finally get to all the projects that I’ve been pushing off all the years ” she said.
The next morning August 7 2007 I heard the terrible news.
Mrs. Hoffman’s middle son, 22-year-old Yehoshua, had been in a horrific car accident. He and another counselor had been taking turns driving a van with a dozen campers to a boating trip in Maine, and during his stint at the wheel, the van had veered off the road and rolled down a ravine. One boy in the van died, and everyone else was injured. Yehoshua himself broke his neck and sustained a severe spinal cord injury along with numerous other bone fractures, and was hovering between life and death.
Mrs. Hoffman flew off to the East Coast to see what was left of her son. In the meantime, e-mail reports on Yehoshua’s condition trickled in. He was going to live, but he would be paralyzed from the neck down: a quadriplegic. His cognitive functions had not fully returned, but it was unclear whether that was a result of the accident or a result of the high dosage of pain medications he was on.
Ten days after the accident, Yehoshua was airlifted to Craig Hospital, a world-renowned rehabilitation facility that specializes in treating patients with spinal cord injury. As Hashgachah had it, Craig Hospital just happens to be in Denver, not far fromYehoshua’s home.
As Yehoshua was weaned off the pain medication, it became clear that he had suffered no cognitive damage. But the physical damage was tremendous. His parents, it seemed, would never have an empty nest after all.
One day, about six weeks after the accident, an e-mail went out saying that Yehoshua’s parents needed a break, and were looking for people to spend Shabbos at the hospital with him so that they could finally have a quiet Shabbos at home. My husband and I had only one son home at the time, so we felt we could do it.
I cooked all the food for Shabbos, and Friday morning I went over to the hospital to meet Yehoshua and set up our hospitality apartment for Shabbos.
When I entered Yehoshua’s room the first time, I found him in his electric wheelchair — upside down. Later, I learned that this was done to promote circulation.
Yehoshua greeted me with a friendly “What’s up?”
I blurted out, “Your knees, I guess!”
Desperate to recover after that faux pas, I followed up with, “That’s a cool electric chair you have!”
Yehoshua pressed a button, and the chair turned him back into a normal sitting position. “We call it a power chair,” he said. “Electric chairs have a bad connotation.”
Talk about an awkward start.
But after that, we spent a nice Shabbos together. At the meals, I cut up Yehoshua’s food and fed it to him, and when he davened, I turned the pages of his siddur for him, feeling much like the page-turner for a concert pianist.
Yehoshua enjoyed our company over Shabbos, and a few weeks later, we returned to the hospital for another Shabbos. It was the week of parshas Vayishlach, and I shared with Yehoshua a devar Torah I had seen from Rav Hirsch about the gid hanasheh. “We don’t eat the gid hanasheh in order to remind ourselves that the strength of a Jew is not in his legs, or in how steady he stands, but in his intellect and soul,” I said.
Some time earlier, I had learned a technique from Rabbi Jonathan Rietti for successful memorization of large amounts of information, and I offered to teach it to Yehoshua so that he could continue to learn and review Torah despite his physical limitations. He expressed interest in learning the technique once he’d be out of the hospital, and when he returned home after his three-month hospitalization, we began a weekly study session in which I taught him how to organize his memory to retain the contents of seforim.
The day we started studying together, I brought him a homemade muffin.
“Sorry, I can’t eat that,” he said.
“What happened?” I asked. “You ate my food in the hospital — now it’s not kosher enough?”
“Every calorie counts,” he explained. “People have to move me everywhere, and I can’t eat anything I don’t really need, because then it will be harder for them to move me.”
In the middle of our learning session, Yehoshua leaned his head forward between his knees, waited a few moments, and then pushed himself back up to a sitting position. (By this time, he had regained some motion, after undergoing intensive physical therapy.)
I looked at him strangely. “What was that?” I asked.
“It’s called a weight shift,” he replied. “I have to make sure the fluids in my body move around every half hour so that they don’t pool under the skin and cause dangerous skin sores.”
The more time I spent with Yehoshua, the more I was impressed with his middos, his maturity, his depth. Despite the devastating tragedy he had been through, he maintained a positive attitude, recognizing that Hashem runs the world and that his body is merely a tool to do the ratzon Hashem in the way He wants, which isn’t necessarily the way we want.
As I got to know Yehoshua, it occurred to me that he would have been perfect for Elisheva. He was a genuine ben Torah, with outstanding middos and a strong relationship with Hashem. Too bad he’s a quadriplegic, I thought.
A month later, I was at a wedding and I saw Yehoshua again. It was his first public appearance since the accident, and he was dressed in a suit, chatting, laughing, and turning his head to greet people. I noticed that he no longer had to be fed — if someone cut up his food for him, he could bring the fork to his mouth on his own.
I looked at him and thought, He’s perfect for Elisheva. Exactly what she’s looking for.
I tried desperately to banish the thought. My daughter had been salutatorian of her class; she was an accomplished, gifted, and perfectly healthy girl with no baggage other than a motley array of family members. Yehoshua was not a match for her. Even if he was thoughtful, honest, spiritual, unassuming, and personable.
He has everything she needs, my brain persisted. Except a working body.
As hard as I tried to quell the notion of Yehoshua and Elisheva getting married, a niggling voice in my head kept whispering, He’s the one.
Haunted by this thought, I finally decided to talk it over with my friend Miriam, Yehoshua’s sister-in-law. Miriam was surprised — and delighted — by the idea. “I can see why you’d think of him for her, Aliza, but would Elisheva be interested in such a complicated shidduch?” she wondered.
“Before I ask her, I need to find out about three things,” I said. “Longevity, family, and finances. How long is Yehoshua expected to live? Can he have a family? And who’s paying for his care?”
The answers to all three questions were positive, with one provision. “As long as Yehoshua doesn’t develop skin sores or other surprise infections, he can enjoy a normal lifespan,” she said.
Having watched Yehoshua in action, I knew that he was careful to take care of his body and do the exercises that would prevent skin sores.
“As far as finances,” Miriam continued, “his care is covered by insurance, baruch Hashem.”
Apparently, the camp Yehoshua had been working for at the time of the accident — a tiny, low-budget heimish camp — had actually taken out workers’-compensation insurance, and since Yehoshua was injured on the job, the insurance company would cover the costs of his care, for life.
In the meantime, I floated the idea to Elisheva, who, like so many others, had been praying fervently for Yehoshua’s recovery since the accident. She didn’t immediately nix the possibility. Neither did my husband, although he did express serious reservations about it.
On Elisheva’s shidduch r?sum?, we had written that she had a sense of adventure. Once she heard that Yehoshua possessed all the qualities she was looking for — including a rare spiritual depth achieved because of what he had gone through – her adventurous side spurred her to actually consider this shidduch. Having kept herself extremely sheltered, she didn’t have preconceived notions of what a marriage relationship should look like, and it didn’t scare her to be married to someone with limited physical function.
After hearing that Elisheva was willing to explore the shidduch further, I scheduled a meeting with Mrs. Hoffman myself. Over coffee, I asked her, “Is Yehoshua thinking of dating?”
She looked at me as though I had grown horns. “No!” she said. “He’s just five months after his accident, Aliza, and he has a two-year recovery period ahead of him!”
“From what I’ve seen of him, I think he and Elisheva could be a nice match,” I said. “It’s almost Purim now, and Elisheva will be home for Pesach. I’d like them to meet when she comes home.”
“I’ll mention it to Yehoshua,” Mrs. Hoffman said reluctantly.
When she went home, she asked Yehoshua, “Are you thinking about dating?”
He looked at her as though she had grown horns. “No!” he said.
“I’m only asking because a shidduch has been suggested for you,” she explained.
“Does the girl know what happened to me?” he asked.
“And she’s frum?”
“And she’s still interested?”
“And you’re sure she’s frum?”
Yehoshua called his rebbi, Rav Noach Orlowek, in Eretz Yisrael. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Someone suggested this girl for me, but I’m still focused on trying to figure out my new body and my new life.”
Since Elisheva was in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Orlowek offered to meet with her first, which he did.
The meeting was supposed to last ten minutes, but it lasted an hour. When the meeting was over, Rav Orlowek said, “This is a good match.”
“I don’t know,” Elisheva faltered. “I’m a healthy girl. Should I be thinking of a shidduch like this? Is this right for me?”
“I love Yehoshua way too much to answer the question for you,” Rav Orlowek said. “All I can tell you is that it’s a good match.”
Elisheva went to the Kosel. She went to Kever Rochel. She spent a lot of time thinking. And then she decided she wanted to meet Yehoshua.
In the meantime, my boss called with a shidduch. The bochur she described sounded perfect for Elisheva — and he was in Eretz Yisrael.
I called Elisheva to tell her about the shidduch. “I don’t think I’m interested, Ima,” she said. “I’m ready to meet Yehoshua.”
“You could meet this bochur in Eretz Yisrael,” I suggested, “and then, if it doesn’t work out, you could meet Yehoshua when you come back to Denver for Pesach.”
“I think I want to meet Yehoshua.”
That was a huge relief for me. If, indeed, Elisheva were to marry Yehoshua, it would be purely her own choice — not imposed by me, and not for lack of other prospects.
When Elisheva came home for Pesach, she met Yehoshua in a coffee shop. He put some money on the table and said, “If you’d like a drink, please buy one.”
After an hour, Yehoshua’s mother came to pick him up.
“That was the easiest date I’ve ever been on,” Elisheva reflected after their meeting. “This is someone who really gets what this world is about: making choices every day about who you want to be and shaping yourself into that person.”
On their second date, Yehoshua and Elisheva met in a pottery studio, where they painted cups and chatted. Yehoshua couldn’t hold the brush with his hand, but he used a special contraption to hold the brush in place.
After that date, Mrs. Hoffman said, “It’s very nice that I’m getting Yehoshua all dressed up and bringing him to the dates. Let’s try having Elisheva pick him up.”
For their third date, Elisheva drove to and from Yehoshua’s house and navigated his chair in and out of the van. Before they met a fourth time, Mrs. Hoffman asked for a meeting between herself, Elisheva, and me. “If you’re thinking about getting serious,” she said, “you need to know about all the work that’s involved.”
She then went through Yehoshua’s daily routine, describing how an aide would come to the house every day to help Yehoshua get dressed, shower, use the bathroom, brush his teeth, and so on. Even with the aide’s help, Mrs. Hoffman still expended intense effort in caring for Yehoshua, and she went into graphic detail about the difficulty involved.
“I can do that,” Elisheva said.
Yehoshua and Elisheva got engaged on Chol Hamoed Pesach, which made things very easy for me: All I had to do was put out some grapes and clementines, and voil?, we had a vort.
Then the reactions started pouring in. From Yehoshua’s circle of friends, it was all positive: “That’s amazing! What a great shidduch! We’re so excited!”
From Elisheva’s circle the reactions were quite different. “Elisheva’s engaged to him? What were her parents thinking?”
Practically everyone was convinced that there must be something secretly wrong with Elisheva. One Shabbos, I was talking to a woman in my community who, on the outside, appeared to have it all. I was one of the few people who knew that her marriage was a total mess.
“I really understood your making this shidduch for your daughter,” she told me. “At least she’ll have someone she can talk to and have a relationship with.”
I was so, so happy to hear that — until she followed up with, “But there is something wrong with Elisheva, right?”
I don’t think she was convinced by my emphatic “No!”
During the engagement, and after the wedding, people approached me with all sorts of comments and questions. Tops among them was, “Will Yehoshua and Elisheva be able to, um, have a normal life?”
“No,” I said. “They won’t. They are going to have an extraordinary life.”
Six months after Yehoshua and Elisheva got married, Elisheva shared with me a concern. “Is it normal that we’re not fighting?” she asked worriedly. “From what I’ve heard, couples usually fight during shanah rishonah.”
“Actually,” I replied, “the fights are usually about who’s going to take out the garbage and who’s supposed to pick up the dirty socks from the floor. You and Yehoshua have nothing to fight about, because you both know who needs to do those things: you!”
It’s been nine years since Yehoshua and Elisheva got married, and today they are the parents of three adorable children, a four-year-old girl and two-year-old twins. Yehoshua does his best to pitch in; he can hold a baby and scoot around in his power chair. Don’t ask me how he manages, but he takes the three kids around town on buses, by himself. Recently he started to drive, using a specially designed car. Today he’s learning and teaching Torah and studying for a PhD in psychology, while Elisheva has paused her teaching career to run their home and care for the children.
One day, every one of us will shed our body and be left only with a soul, a soul that reflects the choices we made in this world with the tools we were given. Hashem chooses just the right body for each of us, and whether that body has diabetes, learning disabilities, or flat feet is His choice. What’s our choice is how we use it.
I do regret having pledged to Elisheva that I would find her a shidduch, because only Hashem can make shidduchim; it was na?ve and ridiculous of me to assure my daughter that I would find her the right boy. But when I see the extraordinary life she and her husband have built together, I don’t for a moment regret fulfilling my pledge the way I did.
To have your story retold by C. Saphir, e-mail a brief synopsis to email@example.com or call +1.718.686.9339 extension 87204 and leave a message. Details will be changed to assure confidentiality.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 668)