“I really don’t need all these dates — there’s only one person I need. So please Hashem don’t send me any more shidduchim until it’s the right one.”
"S o what’s your dream your goal in life?”
I asked that question to many of the young men I met during my three-year stint in shidduchim. More often than not they didn’t have an answer for me. Seeing them at a loss I would restate the question more simply: “Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?”
The typical answer to that question was usually something along the lines of “Well my rebbi says I should do such-and-such.”
“But what do you want to do?” I would press.
I knew what my vision was: to be an eizer k’negdo to help someone learn and teach Torah and achieve his potential in ruchniyus. I didn’t expect a bochur in his early twenties to be able to articulate a precise plan for maximizing his potential but I did expect my future husband to be sufficiently in touch with himself to be able identify how in a general sense he saw himself contributing to the world.
I threw myself into each shidduch that came along trying to give it a fair chance but I found the process extremely draining.
After bochur number 27 I turned to Hashem and said “Thank you for giving me people to go out with but I really don’t need all these dates — there’s only one person I need. So please Hashem don’t send me any more shidduchim until it’s the right one.”
Unbelievably after that the phone calls from shadchanim stopped. For the first time in close to three years I had a break from shidduchim which gave me the opportunity to revitalize myself emotionally and throw myself into my teaching and volunteer work.
One day three months after I asked Hashem to send the right one and the right one only I got a call from my friend Shaindy. “Your husband is on my couch ” she said.
“Wha-a-a-t?” I asked.
She didn’t know much about the bochur who was sitting on her couch talking to her brother. She couldn’t even pronounce his name. “He’s from Mexico he’s learning in Eretz Yisrael and he’s here in Brooklyn visiting. My brother knows him from yeshivah and he says he’s a great guy. But he’s leaving tomorrow to Mexico. Can you go out with him in two hours?”
The whole thing was so weird I didn’t know what to say. But I recognized that if Hashem had stopped sending me shidduchim and now He was sending me this bochur I shouldn’t be so quick to turn it down. My parents agreed. “Go out once and if you want to go out again we can do the research after the first date ” my mother suggested.
Turned out the bochur’s name was Nisso, which I, too, had trouble pronouncing. He had learned in an American yeshivah for a few years, so he spoke fluent English, but his English was heavily accented.
It was clear to me immediately that Nisso possessed all the qualities I was looking for: middos, yiras Shomayim, ahavas haTorah, and simchas hachaim. Plus, he had a dream of spreading Torah.
Nisso’s family was originally from Turkey, but like many other Turkish Jews, his family had moved to Mexico City in the mid-twentieth century. Nisso had actually made mathematical calculations of how many Turkish Jews were left in the world, how many of those Turkish Jews were shomer Shabbos, and how many of the shomer Shabbos Turkish Jews were learning Torah. According to his calculation, he was pretty much the only Torah-learning Turkish Jew in existence. And he felt a tremendous responsibility to carry on the legacy of Turkish Jewry and ensure that Torah would not be forgotten from his community.
I really connected to that vision. But I knew that marrying Nisso would mean overturning my entire life. I would never live in New York again, because there was nothing for Nisso there. I would have to say goodbye to my family for good, which was especially difficult because my father was ill with multiple sclerosis. I would have to change all of my minhagim from Ashkenazic to Sephardic.
It was hard to say yes to that kind of life. But I asked myself, Is life about doing what’s easy, or doing what’s right?
“Go for it,” my parents urged me. And I said yes.
That was the first time I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone.
We got married and moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1998. I had nothing to do, and I knew no one. In New York, I had taught third grade in one school in the morning, taught sixth grade in another school in the afternoon, and volunteered for Bnos Agudath Israel in the evenings, in addition to carrying on a vibrant social life. Now, I was sitting on the couch most of the day, doing nothing. I couldn’t even speak to my family much, because phone calls were still prohibitively expensive. Email barely existed.
In the meantime, not only did I have to learn how to cook, I had to re-learn how to eat. My mother’s Ashkenazic cooking — brisket, corned beef, kugels, gefilte fish — was utterly foreign to Nisso. And the food was just a small part of the adjustment from Ashkenazic to Sephardic living. It wasn’t just a new set of minhagim and a different style of Hebrew pronunciation — it was a cultural sea change.
Even seemingly trivial things like switching from “Gut Shabbos” to “Shabbat Shalom” and changing the nusach of my davening came with an emotional price tag. With each of these minor changes, I felt like I was giving up a part of myself.
Despite the difficulties I was experiencing, when Nisso came home, I would put on a happy, smiling face and try not to let him know how bored and lonely I was. Still, he realized that I was painfully under-stimulated. “You’re a teacher, Yaffa,” he said. “Why don’t you apply for a job in a seminary?”
I burst out laughing. “Why would they take me?” I asked. “I’m a schnook! I’m just a few years older than the seminary girls!”
“What do you have to lose?” he responded. “Worst comes to worst, you end up back on the couch.”
Mustering all my courage, I called up one seminary and asked if I could give a model lesson. They said yes.
The principal of the seminary sat in on that model lesson, and when I finished, he asked me, “Are you a third-grade teacher?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“I really enjoyed the class,” he said, “but I’d like you to go home and prepare this class again, for 18-year-olds. Then you can come back and give it again.”
I did — and I was hired to take over for a teacher who was going on maternity leave. My first child was born shortly after this subbing job was over.
Once I had the confidence of knowing that I could teach in seminary, I applied to other seminaries and landed additional jobs, teaching, supervising extracurricular programming, and directing productions.
At the point when I was living in Eretz Yisrael for three years, I felt that I had found my niche. Eretz Yisrael was finally my home.
In the course of my work in seminaries, I noticed that quite a few of the girls had eating disorders, whether clinically diagnosed or not. Wanting to learn how to help these girls, I took a two-year counseling course, earning certification as an addiction and substance abuse counselor.
I didn’t take the course with the intention of becoming a therapist; I took it to become a better teacher. As it turned out, I was able to put my skills to use not just with my students, but with a lot of the American Israeli teenagers in my neighborhood who were struggling to find their place in Israeli society. I hosted a weekly oneg Shabbos for these girls in my house, schmoozing with them and teaching them about the parshah.
In the meantime, Nisso was traveling, by himself, to Mexico City for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each year to lead a minyan in his home community and give Torah classes. “When are you going to be ready to come back here for good?” the members of the community would ask him.
It took Nisso seven years to receive his semichah and certification as a dayan, and at that point we sat down to discuss what our next step should be. The obvious answer was that Nisso should become a rav in the Turkish community of Mexico City, which desperately needed Torah leadership. Like the other three Jewish communities of Mexico City, the Turkish community boasted a fully functional Jewish infrastructure, including schools, shuls and communal organizations. It was missing just one thing: Torah.
When my seminary students got wind of the fact that I was planning to move to Mexico, they circulated a petition begging me to stay. In deference to their petition, we stayed in Eretz Yisrael an extra three months. But there were plenty of people in Yerushalayim who could replace me. And Nisso’s community in Mexico needed him.
I knew that adjusting to life in Mexico would be challenging, and I was ready for the challenge. Or so I thought.
During my first solo expedition to the supermarket, I struggled to find all the products on my shopping list, and finally, when I had found what I needed, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, I headed to the checkout counter. I thought I was doing fine — until the cashier rattled off a question to me in Spanish.
“No — habla — Espaסol,” I said.
She repeated the question in the same rapid-fire Spanish. Again, I had no idea what she meant. I showed her my money, but that didn’t help. She repeated the question a third time.
A line was forming behind me. I felt my pace quickening and my palms starting to sweat.
In Eretz Yisrael, it had been normal not to know Hebrew. If I walked into a store and didn’t know how to say something, I always managed to work it out with the salesperson. But here in a Mexican supermarket, not speaking Spanish was unfathomable.
I couldn’t go home without my groceries; we needed food in the house, and I had made a special trip out here. And the cashier, clearly, was not going to check me out unless I answered her question. Finally, in desperation, I took out my cell phone and called my husband — who I knew was in middle of giving a shiur at the time.
Thankfully, when he saw it was me, he answered. “Can you speak to the cashier?” I said.
“Sure,” he said, in front of his waiting audience.
When the cashier handed me back the phone a few seconds later, I could hear my husband laughing. “She wants to know if you found everything you were looking for,” he said. “I told her you did, and she should check you out.”
Experiences like that happened all the time, and made me feel hopelessly incompetent.
Although I’m by nature a social butterfly, I found myself avoiding social events because I knew no one and didn’t speak the language. Once, about half a year after I moved to Mexico, a woman in the community invited me to a party she was hosting. I stayed home, because I couldn’t bear the thought of spending an evening trying to communicate in exaggerated sign language.
Some time later, I met this woman, and she asked me, in Spanish, why I hadn’t come.
“Embarazada,” I explained. I spoke very little Spanish at the time, but I knew that there was a word “embarazada.” What else could that mean but “embarrassed”?
When I told my husband about the exchange, his hand flew to his mouth. “Embarazada means expecting!” he exclaimed. (I wasn’t.)
After that, word spread that the new rabbi’s wife was expecting and wasn’t feeling well.
It was a long time before I’d venture to speak Spanish again.
Nisso kept trying to help me pick up Spanish. He found me a private teacher, but I resented her for speaking the language that was hurting me — and for forcing me to speak it too! I stopped seeing her.
A short while later he suggested we start speaking Spanish at home, and he proceeded to communicate with me in Spanish. That triggered serious anxiety in me.
“Home is the only safe space I have,” I told him. “Please don’t take that away from me.”
He got it, and allowed me to progress at my own pace.
As my husband threw himself into his work, I slipped back into the role of lonely homemaker I had played when we had first moved to Israel. By this time, we had three children, so I had my hands full helping them to adjust to their new surroundings. I struggled to communicate with my kids’ teachers, and I couldn’t help my kids with their homework at all.
On Shabbos, Nisso and I hosted numerous guests from the community. In between serving and clearing away the food, I would sit at the table smiling, not understanding a word of what was being said and unable to contribute an intelligent word to the conversation.
As the rabbi’s wife, I had to go to shul every Shabbos, and again, the only interaction I had with the other women was to smile. I thanked Hashem that at least I had a nice smile. But I had so much more to offer, and being reduced to just a pretty smile was torture.
I did give classes for the few women in the community who understood English, but those classes were not very well attended, and there was always a certain communication barrier because I was speaking to them in their second language.
For three years, I chugged and pushed my way through the difficulties of living in Mexico. And then I crashed.
In retrospect, I think I was psychologically prepared for a three-year adjustment period, since that was the amount of time it had taken me to fully adjust to living in Eretz Yisrael. When I was still feeling sad, lonely, and bored three years after moving to Mexico, I hit an all-time low. Will I ever get used to this place? I wondered.
Each night after putting the kids to sleep, I would crawl into bed and wallow in my pain for hours, until sleep would finally come. (My husband came home after midnight, long after I collapsed for the evening.)
My energy and joie-de-vivre ebbed away, and I gained 50 pounds. For the first time in my life, I found myself feeling critical and resentful of the people around me, specifically the Mexican Jews. Every cultural difference I encountered — and there were many — annoyed me, which was completely out of character for me. I felt completely dysfunctional.
Once again, I didn’t want to burden my husband with the difficulties I was experiencing. I was here to support him, after all. And he was working really hard, setting up all sorts of learning programs in the community. The last thing he needed was a wife who was falling apart. So I kept my difficulties to myself, sharing my frustration with no one. Because my father was ill, I didn’t want to add to my parents’ stress, so I didn’t complain to them, either.
At some point, a friend from Eretz Yisrael emailed me that she was organizing a taanis dibbur as a zechus for a refuah sheleimah for someone. When I saw the email, I burst out crying. I kept a taanis dibbur all day, every day.
But the email got me thinking. Back when I had moved to Israel, people had been using dial-up internet to send emails. But now, a decade later, keeping up with people all over the world was as easy as a few clicks. If I couldn’t reach out to people here in Mexico, then at least I could reach out to the people on my own email list — family, friends, former students.
I decided to start writing up a weekly dvar Torah and send it out to everyone on my list. Maybe someone would respond, and then I’d have some communication.
One of the first emails I sent out was the week of parshas Lech Lecha. Reading the parshah, I was struck by something I had never noticed before: Hashem actually commanded Avraham “Lech lecha” twice, once when instructing Avraham to go to Eretz Yisrael and once before the Akeidah. As I pondered this, it occurred to me that the first time, Hashem was telling Avraham to leave go of his past, by traveling away from his homeland, and the second time, He was telling him to leave go of his future, by sacrificing Yitzchak.
Hashem wants us to serve Him on His terms, not on ours, I reflected.
That thought lit a fire under me. I’m not a loser, I told myself. If this is where Hashem put me, this is where I’m meant to be successful.
From that point on, I allowed myself to learn Spanish. Since my arrival in Mexico I had resisted doing that, because I hated the language and resented the people who spoke it — probably because I felt, at least subconsciously, that Spanish had robbed me of my identity and vibrancy.
I began pushing myself to speak Spanish, even though I knew I was making tons of mistakes and sounding like a dimwit. Eventually, I was able to carry on a conversation in Spanish, but I still could not teach in Spanish.
In the meantime, my weekly parshah emails morphed into a parshah blog, which I started in 2011, in memory of my father, who had passed away shortly before that. The blog eventually became a video blog, and when that happened, I started receiving invitations for speaking engagement in various American cities.
Parshas Lech Lecha a year and a half ago was the week of the international Shabbos Project. By then, I had been living in Mexico for ten years. I was supposed to give a talk to the women who came to participate, and I decided to talk about the idea of moving out of your comfort zone. As I was about to start speaking, I looked around the room and realized that almost every one of the 200 women in the room was more comfortable in Spanish than in English.
On the spot, I made the decision to move out of my own comfort zone and speak in Spanish — even though my notes were in English and I hadn’t thought at all about how to express the ideas in Spanish.
I walked out of the room an hour and a half later with a splitting headache, feeling on top of the world.
A week later, I got a call from a local organization asking if I could teach women in the community, in Spanish. I agreed. I had to take Tylenol before every class, but I did it. I had arrived. Mexico was finally my home.
Three months after I gave my first class in Spanish, we got a call from the Jewish community of San Diego. They were looking for a rabbi and a rebbetzin.
We had no intention of leaving. I was comfortable in Mexico, finally, and my husband had created a revolution in the city. He was the rav of a community of 5,000 people, and had created numerous learning programs, including a kollel, a kiruv-training program, a bar- and bas-mitzvah program, and a program for college students. Couples who had become shomer Shabbos through his programs were getting married and starting frum homes, and his efforts were bearing fruit in a way that was nothing short of remarkable.
The people in San Diego hadn’t called us at random, though. They were looking for something very specific: a rabbi and rebbetzin who spoke English and Spanish, and who were both capable of teaching and being involved with the community. They told us that the San Diego community was undergoing an acute spiritual crisis. Only about 100 families out of the city’s 90,000 Jews were shomer Shabbos — some of them only marginally — and there was little Torah being learned in the city.
After weighing the pros and cons extensively and consulting with daas Torah, we realized that the principle of “In a place where there are no men, try to be a man” applied to our situation. In Mexico, Nisso’s students were already teaching Torah and were heavily involved in the running of many of the programs he had established. His loss — and mine, to a lesser extent x— would be felt there, but we would be replaceable.
A decade earlier, I would not have believed how sad I would be to leave Mexico. The goodbyes were wrenching.
We moved to San Diego before Rosh Hashanah of this year. Prior to our move, my husband had occupied a prestigious rabbinic position — yet now, we had to start knocking on doors and asking people to join our programs.
Our work here in San Diego is just beginning, and it’s an uphill journey. Once again, I’m struggling with all sorts of adjustment issues as Nisso and I get to know this new community and figure out how we can realize our dream of spreading Torah. But as I’ve learned through experience, it’s when we’re out of our comfort zone that we have the greatest potential for growth.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 662 – Special Shavuos Edition – 2017)
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