| Calligraphy |

My Son, The Rosh Yeshiva


still don’t know why we’re saying yes to the shidduch.

Since he was little, I knew Yudi would have no shortage of shidduch suggestions when the time came. I know I’m his mother, but you can believe me when I tell you that Yudi has this unusual combination of charisma and intensity. Some people snort when mothers say “this one is a future rosh yeshivah,” but if you’d have seen Yudi as a 10-year-old, explaining the Gemara to his friends, or as bar mitzvah boy delivering his pshtel with aplomb, you might have said it, too.

I’m not surprised that Yudi’s close with Rabbi Scheinfeld; he’s always had this penchant for seeking out and attaching himself to greatness — first in high school, then in beis medrash, and now in Israel. When we talk every week, he fills me in about their private chavrusashaft or the Shabbos meals he eats there, and I’m sure he feels my pride over the phone line.

But I never dreamed Rabbi Scheinfeld would redt a shidduch for my Yudi. Maybe that’s why I can’t say an automatic no. I mean, how could a maggid shiur living in a tiny apartment in Yerushalayim know what my Yudi really needs? He only sees Yudi the masmid, Yudi the blossoming talmid chacham. He doesn’t know where Yudi comes from. He doesn’t have the most basic understanding of our family, our lifestyle and our values. Not that we don’t value the same limud Torah Rabbi Scheinfeld values. We know where Yudi’s talents lie, and we want him to shine. But that’s exactly why this shidduch is so wrong.

I have no doubt this Malka Rosenthal is a wonderful girl with beautiful middos and a good upbringing. But I’m also pretty sure her parents — who moved to Israel when she was 10 — are very, very different from us. She may check out on paper, but there’s no way we can gauge all those elusive qualities that make a girl suited to a boy. Is this the kind of girl I’ll be proud to bring to shul with me? Will she understand how things are done, how things should look, how important nourishing meals are for a budding talmid chacham? I imagine that living in Israel, with many siblings and a small apartment, it will be very difficult for her to intuit Yudi’s standards.

But Chaim tells me you don’t disregard such a chashuveh maggid shiur’s suggestion so cavalierly. “Let them go out,” he shrugs, “or sit in, or whatever they do there in Israel. It will be good experience for Yudi before he comes back and really starts shidduchim.”

I’m a good wife, always have been, so I keep my doubts inside and let Chaim speak to Rabbi Scheinfeld.

We don’t agonize too much over Yudi’s appearance for this date, but I do remind him to shave and polish his shoes, and I urge him to wear the light blue tie — the one I bought him for Succos that brings out the color of his eyes. I highly doubt the Rosenthals are all that discriminating, but no son of mine will show up for a date looking anything less than his best.

It’s funny, because the night before his date, I get two phone calls with shidduch suggestions for Yudi. Real suggestions. The best, brightest, and most balabatish girls of last year’s seminary crop. In a way it’s good Yudi’s going out with this Malka, I think. Then he’ll really appreciate the dates I have lined up for him come Pesach.

But when I speak to Yudi after his date, there’s something in his voice that makes me nervous. “It was really nice, Ma,” he tells me. “I know it’s too early to say anything, but you know … well …” His voice trails off and I feel a threatening twist in my stomach.

“I’m happy it went well, sheifelah” — I somehow find a noncommittal tone — “and I’m sure you’re the type of boy who could handle a conversation with anyone. So, how’s the learning going? And tell me, do you think you’ll have enough of those steak and schnitzel suppers to last you, or should I send you some more?”

“Your suppers are great, Ma,” Yudi says warmly, but I notice he hasn’t really answered my question. “I’m fine, I’m good until the end of the zman. Don’t worry about me so much. Now, about this girl … do you think Tatty could speak to Rabbi Scheinfeld about a second date, or should I just do it myself?”

I draw in my breath. A second date? Why would you do that? I want to scream, but instead I just say, “Let me talk to Tatty, okay?”



t’s all your fault!” I yell at Chaim, after making sure the doors to his study are tightly closed and the kids are occupied. “Why did you let him do this? Why did you let this happen?”

Chaim continues sorting through the day’s mail, making piles of bills, tzedakah appeals, invitations. Sometimes I think he consciously lets me scream out my angst because he knows it will be easier afterward, after it’s all out.

“You know Yudi is young and dumb! You know he’s under the influence of that maggid shiur over there! You know boys this age are likely to fall for the first pretty girl they see! What’s going to be?” I’m almost shaking with anger. “How do we stop this?”

Chaim looks at me, bemused. “What are you so worried about, Idy?” he asks. He’s probably thinking Yudi is still 12, still under his thumb and ready to switch directions or yeshivos or life mates just because his father said so, I realize. And I know, too, what language will make him take notice.

“What do you mean?” I snap. “I’m worried Yudi’s going to marry this girl who is completely and utterly unsuited to our family. He wants a second date, don’t you see where it’s heading? We’re going to have to fly everyone in for a wedding in Israel, and we’ll probably have to buy them an apartment there, too. And I can’t imagine this Rosenthal family will be able to help out at all, so you’ll be paying their bills for the rest of your life — not that you’ll ever see your son again. He’s going to stay there forever. You’ll have these Israeli grandchildren who can’t speak English, who won’t know how to sign the checks you’ll have to send them. And it’s your fault!”

“Hmmm,” Chaim pulls his fingers away from the mail. “You think this is really serious?”

Finally he’s seeing the light.



t was an awkward conversation — and I usually have an easy time finding my words — but sometimes a mother has to do what’s best for her son. It’s a shame this was my first time speaking with Rabbi Scheinfeld; I wonder what he thinks of me and I hope he understands why I had to stop the shidduch. Look, he’s probably young himself. Or maybe he’s an out-of-towner or something, and he doesn’t understand all the nuances. A mother’s heart knows what’s best for her son. And Yudi will get over it; just wait until Pesach when he sees what kind of families are interested in him. Families that can build him a yeshivah one day, when he’s ready to become something big.



udi calls me every week to wish me Good Shabbos, just like the well-brought-up boy he is. But there’s something in his voice that sounds different. Sad maybe? Accusing? Distant? I try not to pay too much attention to it, prattling energetically about the latest simchahs and shul news. Every now and then I hint to the opportunities waiting for him when he’s back.

He’s my son, my star. I want him to shine, but I also know better than anyone else which firmament he belongs in.



hen I was a young mother, trying to juggle the kids and the house, Yom Tov was a burden. Now that the kids are getting older and I don’t see them all that much — and now that they’ve become mentschen who can sit around the table and have real conversations — it’s such a treat to have them all back under one roof.

Yudi’s such a wonderful boy, it’s amazing to see how he balances his bein hazmanim schedule, learning in the mornings and helping me out in the afternoons. I don’t how I’d make Pesach without him. None of the other kids have that knack for fitting everything into the freezer the way he does, or planning all the errands so efficiently. During one of those freezer-packing sessions, when the girls are busy in the Pesach kitchen in the basement and the younger boys are shoe-shopping, I tell Yudi about his options.

“The first girl I want you to meet is actually going to be a very nice date,” I tell him. “It’s a Klein girl, you know that family whose grandmother was with Babby in Auschwitz? The one she met in Florida 30 years later … Anyway, the Kleins have this daughter Suri who sounds perfect for you. I just wanted to find out what your Chol HaMoed schedule is like, so we can work something out.”

Yudi’s eyes look duller than I remembered. “I don’t really have a schedule, Ma,” he says. “I’m available for a date whenever it works. I just need to find out how to do this dating thing on Pesach when you can’t even have a soda.”

“Great, I’m going to call Gitty back right away!” I ignore the lukewarm response. It’s normal to be nervous about shidduchim. “Let’s get moving with this. I have lots of other names, but everything I hear about this Suri just feels so right.”

Yudi’s only response is to firmly close the freezer door.



ut why?” I protest in dismay. “What went wrong?”

“Nothing, Ma, really,” Yudi says miserably. “But nothing went right. There was just no … no connection. It felt like a waste of time.”

Iyar. We couldn’t find anything to talk about.

Sivan. She doesn’t care about any of the important things.

Tammuz. I can tell already, she’s not the one.

Av. Too shallow for me.

Elul. I can’t imagine talking about anything serious with her.

My mind is telling me something but my heart doesn’t want to hear. At night I let the inevitable wash over me, seeing myself flushed with shame in a shabby wedding hall, stumblingly introducing my mechutanim to my shul friends who have flown in for the simchah. I see Yudi waving goodbye as I depart back to America, leaving him in the blistering sun and poverty of the Middle East. How can I let the nightmare come true?

But how much longer can I watch this lonely, quiet Yudi resignedly dating — and nixing — the glowing prospects in my notebook?

My heart is telling me something my mind has yet to comprehend. Sometimes things make sense even when the logistics don’t add up. Sometimes you have to leap before you look — because if you look, the chasm below will freeze you with fear.




here’s one thing I know, one thing I’ve decided. I’m going to be the gracious, gallant mother-in-law who keeps her disappointment in a secret pouch, far from the eyes of the world. My friends are going to think I’m oblivious to the flaws in this very odd shidduch.

I’m not the best of actresses; it’s hard to pretend I’m floating on a cloud of bliss when so much about this feels wrong. But for Yudi, I’m going to do this right. Me and the makeup lady will be the only ones who know the truth.

The wedding is hazy. I remember this from my own wedding — people lead you, position you, instruct you. Stand here, hold this, break this plate, smile … walk this way, turn around … And it’s all done, the magic words have been said and the music heralds the new couple. As I smile and kiss the air and dance in these painful heels, I sense my guests are wondering why I seem so delighted with this shy little girl who has none of the poise or class they always envisioned for Idy’s eldest son. How can I tell them I’m just as confounded as they? Something bigger than me has orchestrated this shidduch.

Malka is one of those perfectly sweet and sincere kallos whose every move seems scripted to nauseating perfection. She thanks everyone so sweetly and dances with my shul friends so gracefully and inquires about our accommodations with such sincere concern. Will I ever like this girl? Will I ever trust her to understand my son?

I look at the two of them chatting during sheva brachos and feel, alongside the doubt, some sense of peace. Yudi is happy. Malka worships him. Maybe Rabbi Scheinfeld knew something I didn’t. Maybe this sweet, adoring girl really is the right partner for my son, the one who will help him achieve his dreams of greatness.

Well, at least I won’t be an interfering mother-in-law. Brooklyn is far, far away from their golden newlywed bubble.



udi and Malka use those first few months to set up their little apartment and get used to married life. Every time I speak to them, I can almost touch their ebullience through the phone wires. That little knot of tension inside me slowly, gradually starts to unwind. Maybe Malka isn’t the class act I always imagined, but maybe I imagined wrong. Maybe this uncomplicated, trusting, no-frills girl is what Yudi needed all along.

When I come in to visit, the apartment is neat and welcoming. The newlyweds, I see, have already begun to communicate without words, intuiting each other’s opinions and needs. There are a few awkward moments, when Malka’s idea of “normal” seems so utterly foreign to me, and I wonder how Yudi will manage the rest of his life with a wife who thinks this is how a Shabbos table looks, or how a woman grooms herself before going out to eat. But I swallow, very hard, and pry away the cold fingers grabbing at my heart. He’s happy, I keep repeating. He’s happy.

At some point though, I begin to notice that Yudi doesn’t sound so happy anymore. It isn’t during the first year; those 12 months have a lilt of undiluted joy. It isn’t during the second year; the tiredness of a new father singing too many lullabies is still a sweet fatigue. Maybe it’s the third year, when Yudi’s voice takes on a harder edge. Malka is still sweet Malka, though. Whatever tension he’s feeling, it hasn’t penetrated her bubble.

I may be far away, but I’m a mother, and I know my son. I wonder: Does Malka sense the same unease I’m hearing? Does she realize that my charismatic, positive son is morphing into a cynical man? Sometimes I hope she sees it, that she’s perceptive enough to know his discontent. And sometimes I feel her obliviousness somehow gives me an upper hand.

When the phone call comes and Yudi starts off with “Ma, there’s something we want to tell you,” I start picturing baby clothing and double strollers. But the script veers sharply to the left. “We’re thinking about moving to America,” he says. “I’m looking into accounting courses. If we can manage to pack up and sell all the appliances and furniture fast enough, we’ll be able to come right before Yom Tov.”

First comes the silence. Then the questions. Then later, when everyone’s sleeping, the unspoken accusations. This is my son the talmid chacham! The star! The one with the golden future! I knew what he needed, I knew what kind of family would bring out his best. I knew she wasn’t right for him. I knew he could only flourish in a certain kind of environment. I’m his mother. I know best. Why didn’t I stand up for my son’s future?



hen they appear in Arrivals behind the suitcases and stroller, I force myself to hug Malka even as I wonder why no one informed those Israeli sheitelmachers that flat sheitels are out of style. Yudi looks tired but his smile is genuine. It’s good he’s happy to see us, even though his dreams are lying in pieces all along the route from Ben-Gurion to JFK. At least with those blue eyes, the baby is undeniably delicious.

Later that night, we sit around the kitchen table, sipping tea. Outside on the porch, the succah waits quietly for Yom Tov to fill it with vitality and light.

There are so many details for Yudi and Malka to settle, so many decisions to make. Our conversation seems almost normal, maybe even exciting, if not for the fact that this is my star who’s been rudely flung out of orbit. I try to keep the accusations out of my face as we discuss options: where to live, what kind of job, health insurance, a car. Malka’s smile remains fixed on her face, and she seems excited by the dazzling possibilities of the goldeneh medineh. I wonder if she realizes what she’s losing by sending her husband out to work.

It’s funny, I think to myself after they say good night and head to the guestroom. I thought she was this sincere Bais Yaakov girl who would sacrifice everything for his learning. The way she said amen to all those brachos, the way she davened during sheva brachos, the way she presided over their tiny little apartment.… She seemed like the perfect wife for a future rosh yeshivah. Who would have imagined that after three years and just one baby, she would have had enough?



he hardest thing was telling Malka.” Yudi’s methodically positioning my kugels and soups inside the freezer, the way only he can. “Have you ever seen her daven? She had such dreams for me.” His voice might be cracking, but I can’t really tell, because his shoulders are halfway inside the freezer.

“It was my dream too. But after those first two years, it started to evaporate. I tried to grab it back, I tried to find myself in the beis medrash … but it just … I …” Articulate Yudi has no words. I quietly wrap another pan and label it “stuffed cabbage.”

“Here, you can hand that to me,” Yudi says, suddenly clear-voiced. “I realized, at a certain point, that I was wasting my time, that I couldn’t do three sedarim a day anymore. So my rebbeim, my rosh yeshivah, everyone I spoke to had basically the same advice. What do they call it on the GPS? Recalculate? I had to recalculate. I had to stop fooling myself into thinking I’d find my future inside the beis medrash. We discussed the options, the eventualities. And they told me again and again you can be an eved Hashem even in an office.

“So I tried to imagine myself in different jobs. I walked myself through the day, imagining how it would feel, trying to get a handle for it. I imagined myself working in Tatty’s business, taking over some of his buildings, maybe starting another development. But I realized I’m not a risk-taker. I don’t think I’d ever be able to grow his business. Any business.

“I thought about law. But I want a job with boundaries, with hours I can control. Maybe I’m not going to be a maggid shiur” — is that bitterness or just jet lag? — “but I don’t want to be enslaved to a job with endless hours. I’ll always start and end my day in a beis medrash.

“So we talked, we discussed, and my rebbeim thought accounting made the most sense. And you know, Ma, I do have that methodical kind of brain,” he gestures emotionlessly at the precision-filled freezer. “So it makes sense.”

The clock ticks as I smooth out the foil covering the kugel again and again. Nothing is the way I imagined. That golden newlywed bubble is a sad puddle on the floor, and it was something inside Yudi — not Malka — that shattered its buoyancy.

“Yeah, everything made sense and accounting was it. But there was a bigger problem. Because most working guys my age in Eretz Yisrael are living outside of the system. They’re considered rebels, their kids don’t get into normal schools, they’re not part of the mainstream yeshivish crowd. Maybe in 10 years, 20 years, things will change. Maybe in other neighborhoods or other circles, it’s happening already. But right now the yeshivish balabos has not yet been imported to Israel’s yeshivah world. To be a normal yeshivish guy and also an accountant — I couldn’t do it there. It had to be here, in America.

“So we were moving to America. But no one could tell me how to break it to Malka.”

The freezer is full and there’s nothing more for me to hand Yudi.

“Ma, I know you would never give us anything less than a royal welcome,” he says. “But if there’s anything you can do to make it easier for Malka, please …” He smiles a sad sort of half-smile, gently closes the freezer, and leaves me with my thoughts.



hen I meet Malka in the lobby I don’t have to appraise her sheitel or her outfit. Over the years, she’s grown into her role, found a balance between her natural refinement and the glamour that comes with her position in society. Does she cry, in private, for the dreams she once had? Does she mourn the distance from her parents and the simple life she envisioned? That’s not something I would know; I know a strong, positive woman who has embraced her destiny with grace.

Sometimes I think about my predictions for Yudi, the way I underestimated and overestimated him at the same time. I put him inside a narrow box and never dreamed he could build a home with someone from a different background, or find common ground with a girl so foreign to our family. But he was broader than his mother.

At the same time, maybe I overestimated. Maybe my son, with all his charisma and talent, wasn’t quite the star I thought. After all, a good head and charming character don’t necessarily equal a future rosh yeshivah. It hurts to contemplate whether I overinflated his expectations, placing him on a pedestal so daunting that when he faced reality, it was with a painful downward crash, instead of a graceful segue into the workplace and next stage of life.

Still, I always knew Yudi would make me proud. Maybe I hadn’t imagined all the particulars exactly right, but tonight, as he accepts the honor at the dinner, the details haze together anyway. There’s Yudi standing on the dais, exchanging a hug with Rabbi Scheinfeld that bespeaks mutual respect for each man’s integrity and accomplishments. There’s a crowd of men looking on in esteem and gratitude at my blue-eyed boy who has become a pillar they all rely on. He may not have filled the role I expected him to fill or inhabited the sphere I predicted, but Yudi has become a great man.

On the other side of the mechitzah, two women in classic black attire are sharing weepy smiles. No one knows the pain and frustrated dreams of Yudi’s wife, but I have a small idea of the courage, resilience, and acting abilities of the woman at my side whose sweetly supportive attitude belies a core of steel. He may have shattered her girlish portrait of marriage, but she picked up the pieces and built herself a new life in a new country without question or complaint.

Most of the women in this room look at us with admiration — the perfectly suited mother and daughter-in-law, sharing pride and joy and accomplishment. Some of them, the ones a bit older and wiser, still wonder why such an accomplished man like Yudi Grossman took a wife from such a different background, a sweet and naive girl who seemed so unsuited to his sparkling persona.

Me, I smile and tear a bit at the strange twists and turns that found Yudi his bashert, and kindled his mother’s pride in his choice. At this moment, watching him absorb the limelight and Malka bask in his reflection, I can’t help but wonder how my Yudi ended up with such a gem.


(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Succos 5773)

Oops! We could not locate your form.