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One Mechilah to Go, with Fries and a Coke

“B-b-but,” I sputtered, “how could we give them a shtar mechilah if they never even said I’m sorry?  How do you forgive someone who never asked for forgiveness?”

Iwas sitting at the kitchen table at 10 p.m., working out the seating arrangements for my son Shaya’s wedding the following night, when my cell phone rang.


It was Shaya, who had left the house a few minutes earlier to bring his stuff to the apartment where he and his kallah, Rivky Kaufman, would be staying during sheva brachos.

“Ma, are you sitting?”

“Sure I’m sitting, Shayale, I’m doing the tables. You have no idea how complicated this is. I can’t seat Tante Frimchu next to Aunt Judy, because they don’t get along, but I also can’t seat her with Tatty’s side of the family … I’m telling you, I don’t have the head for this now.”

“Well,” Shaya said, his voice wavering a little, “you might as well stop now. The wedding is off.”

“What?” I gasped. “When — what happened?”

“I just got a call from Eliezer Kaufman, Rivky’s older brother. He told me that the shidduch is off.”

“But, why?” I cried out.

“He said it’s, er, lashon hara, and he doesn’t want to talk about it,” Shaya stammered.

“I texted Rivky to find out what’s going on,” Shaya continued, “but she didn’t write back. I don’t understand what’s going on.”

I felt numb. What was I supposed to do? What was I supposed to say? I wanted to hug Shaya tight and tell him that it was a mistake, that everything was going to be fine.

“Shaya, come home,” I said. “I’m calling Tatty to come home, too. We need to figure out what to do.”

There was a pause. “What should I do with my stuff?” Shaya asked hesitantly. “I just finished hanging up my suits and ties in the closet.”

“Leave it there,” I whispered. “Just come home.”

I buried my head in my hands, wondering how I could possibly break the news to Kalman, who had gone out to daven Maariv. Just then, Kalman called me. “The strangest thing just happened,” he said. “My friend Gershon Feldstein came over to me after Maariv and told me that he’s sorry to hear the bad news. I asked him what on earth he was talking about, and he clapped his hand over his mouth and said, ‘Oy vey, you don’t know?’ After that, he didn’t want to tell me anything, but I forced it out of him. The Kaufmans broke the engagement. Everyone in shul is talking about it.”

Shaya walked through the door just at that moment, looking white as a ghost, and Kalman stormed in a few minutes later.

“What kind of business is this?” he fumed. “Breaking an engagement the day before a wedding? And telling the whole world before bothering to let us know? What a chutzpah! I’m calling Chaim Kaufman right this minute.”

He didn’t get very far. The moment he introduced himself, Chaim Kaufman, the kallah’s father, said, “I don’t think we should be discussing this directly. If you need to tell us anything, please call the shadchan.”

Kalman’s face went purple when he realized that Chaim Kaufman had hung up.

“I guess we should call Bryna,” I said hesitatingly. Bryna Price, a cousin of Leah Kaufman and an old classmate of mine from school, had made the shidduch between Shaya and Rivky.

Kalman shook his head vehemently. “I won’t play these games! We didn’t do anything wrong to the Kaufmans — we let them make all the decisions about the wedding, and we handed over the money for half the wedding without a word. Why shouldn’t they talk to us? We need to know what’s going on, and we don’t have time to lose!”

“Leah,” he instructed me, “you call Suri Kaufman. Just keep talking — don’t let her hang up on you. And, call from my cell phone, not yours. She won’t recognize my number.”

I dialed the familiar number of my machateineste — ex-machateineste? — and when she picked up, I started talking very quickly, before she even had a chance to say hello. “Suri, we have to meet face to face to discuss this, we can’t go through Bryna, it’s only a day before the wedding and—”

“Speak to Bryna,” Suri said. “Goodbye.”

“Suri!” I pleaded. “Listen to me! Let’s discuss this like mentschen! I want to hear what you have to say! We don’t have to—”

There was no one on the line.

“Call Rivky,” Kalman told Shaya.

“But I’m not allowed to call her the week of the wedding!” Shaya protested.

Then, a moment later, he remembered. “Oh,” he said dully. “How dumb of me.”

He dialed Rivky’s number, but there was no answer.

Wordlessly, Kalman handed Shaya his own cell phone. Shaya waited a few seconds, then dialed Rivky from Kalman’s phone. This time, Rivky answered.

“Hi, Rivky, it’s Shaya,” he said.

My heart contorted when I heard him say his kallah’s name. Just a few short months ago, when they were dating, he had asked me shyly whether I thought he could call her by her first name, and I had encouraged him to go for it. Now, when he said Rivky’s name, I could still hear the shy, tender innocence in his voice — innocence that was being demolished right before my eyes.

A look of bewilderment crossed Shaya’s face as he listened to what Rivky was saying. A few seconds later, the phone dropped from his hands onto the floor. “She says I’m not supposed to be calling her, and there’s nothing to discuss,” he whispered.

Kalman called Bryna. She assured him that all of the arrangements had already been taken care of — the hall, the band, the photographers, the florist, everything had been cancelled, and calls had been placed to all the invitees from both sides notifying them that the wedding was off. “The Kaufmans even managed to cancel the rental car that Shaya reserved for the week of sheva brachos,” she said. “So, you don’t have to worry about a thing.”

Kalman covered the receiver with his hand. “Looks like we’re the last ones to find out about all this,” he mouthed. “Even the car rental company knew before us.”

“Let’s leave the technicalities aside for now,” Kalman said to Bryna. “I’d like to understand what happened here.”

Bryna cleared her throat. “Rivky has had some serious reservations about the shidduch ever since the engagement. Her parents and I initially thought that these reservations were just normal pre-wedding jitters, and we encouraged her to go ahead with the wedding plans anyway. But now, the week of the wedding, the parents saw that she was becoming a nervous wreck, and they realized that there was no way she could go to the chuppah like this. They figured that it’s better to call off the wedding now, rather than go ahead with it and end up in an even stickier situation.”

“Can you tell us what the kallah’s reservations were?”

“I’m not at liberty to reveal that.”

“Okay.” Kalman’s face was turning purple. “But why can’t the Kaufmans communicate with us directly?”

“They didn’t want to cause machlokes, and they felt that it would be better if there was no direct communication.”

Realizing that he couldn’t get any further with Bryna, Kalman thanked her and hung up.

Kalman turned to Shaya, whose face was deathly white. “I have one question,” he said. “How did the Kaufmans manage to cancel your rental car?”

“Rivky’s father asked me last week how I was planning to get around during sheva brachos. When I told him I was going to rent a car, he grimaced, and said that it’s silly to rent, there are enough people in the family who can give us rides. Then he asked me where I was planning to rent the car from, what size car I was going to get, how much it was going to cost — all sorts of questions. The usual.”

“The usual?” I asked. “That’s usual?”

Shaya shrugged. “My shver always asked me lots of questions. It was annoying, but Rivky told me he does that to everyone, so I didn’t pay much attention to it.”

“What kind of questions did he ask you?”

“Oh, I don’t know… what time I was planning to bring Rivky back from a date, why we needed a two-bedroom apartment, how much each text message cost me — anything and everything.”

Kalman pursed his lips. “How did Rivky feel about her father’s, er, approach to you?”

“She was always very worried about what her father would say,” Shaya reflected. “When I bought her chocolates once, she looked a little upset, and said that she’d better eat them before her father sees, because he might think it was inappropriate. Every time we went out, she’d get nervous at around 11 p.m. and say that we should head back before her father started to worry.”

“Why didn’t you tell us anything about this before?” Kalman asked.

“What was there to tell you? A father is allowed to ask about his daughter, no?”

Kalman and I exchanged glances. We knew that our mechutan was a punctilious person — he hadn’t given us an easy time when we talked money, or any time we discussed plans related to the wedding. Our method of dealing with him, as with our previous mechutanim, had been, “Just say yes, yes, yes, and hand over the cash.” Chaim Kaufman had been more hung up on details and technicalities than our other mechutanim, but we thought it was just a case of “different strokes for different folks.” But now that we were hearing about the way Chaim Kaufman had routinely grilled Shaya, a new, disturbing picture was starting to emerge.

“Maybe it’s a good thing they decided to call off the shidduch,” I murmured.

Kalman sighed. Shaya covered his face with his hands, but not before I noticed the tear rolling down his cheek.

We tried calling the Kaufmans and Rivky a few more times, and then we gave up. There were still tons of things that had to be taken care of, so we gritted our teeth and called Bryna again.

For days, Shaya did not leave the house. He didn’t want to meet anyone, he didn’t want to talk to anyone, he just wanted to be left alone. I wanted to be left alone, too, away from the people who clucked their tongues and asked all sorts of questions (“Did they give your money back? Why did they wait until the day before the wedding?”), and away from the people who were studiously avoiding me because they felt uncomfortable.

The next stage was worse. My Shaya, my gentle, refined yeshivah bochur, turned into a raging volcano. If before he had been sad and withdrawn, now he was mad — even vengeful. He’d storm into the kitchen and shout, “I didn’t do anything to them! They treated me like a piece of dirt! I could kill them with my bare hands!”

It was heartbreaking, and frightening, to hear him. I consulted with a psychologist, who advised me to let Shaya vent his feelings safely, at whatever decibel level he chose, using whichever words he wanted. “This is not the time to give him mussar about how everything is for the best,” the psychologist said. “Right now, he needs to feel the pain and express it so that he can get over it.”

The anger continued for several weeks, and I just listened and absorbed it. After Shaya would finish ranting to me, he’d get on the phone with his siblings and share his humiliation and hurt with them. He spoke to his rebbi, and to his rosh yeshivah, and they were kind enough to listen, understand, and comfort him.

He was just starting to heal, and so were we, when the next blow hit. My brother Yerucham called me up one day with distressing news. “The word on the street is that you and Kalman tormented the Kaufmans after they broke the engagement, even though they requested that you go through a third party.”

I gasped. “What?! Because we tried to call them a few times the night they called off the wedding?”

These were the same Kaufmans who wouldn’t tell us why they broke the engagement “because it was lashon hara,” and refused to speak to us directly because they didn’t want to cause machlokes.

“I’m afraid that’s not all,” Yerucham added. “The Kaufmans are saying that Shaya was insolent to the kallah’s parents, and that you and Kalman had no regard for what they wanted. I wouldn’t have told you all this, but everyone’s talking about it, so I thought you should know.”

Over the next few months, Shaya’s name and our family’s reputation were dragged through the mud, as rumors of our alleged misconduct grew wings. Shaya was rumored to be an abuser; Kalman and I were said to be control freaks. And there was absolutely nothing we could do to clear our name.

I was standing in my kitchen Erev Yom Kippur afternoon, preparing the seudah hamafsekes, when the phone call came. It was Rabbi Smilowitz, the rav of the Kaufmans’ shul. “The Kaufmans have asked me to approach you on their behalf,” he began. “They feel that this would be appropriate for Shaya to give them a shtar mechilah. This way, your family could go into Yom Kippur with a clean slate.”

Our family could go into Yom Kippur with a clean slate? It would be appropriate for Shaya to give them a shtar mechilah?

“B-b-but,” I sputtered, “how could we give them a shtar mechilah if they never even said I’m sorry?  How do you forgive someone who never asked for forgiveness?”

“That’s not how a shtar mechilah works,” Rabbi Smilowitz replied. “It’s accepted that when there’s a broken engagement, a shtar mechilah is granted. It’s not such a big deal.”

That was when I lost it. “It’s not such a big deal? It’s not a big deal that the Kaufmans

dumped my son the day before his wedding, completely destroyed his reputation, and changed him from a sweet, gentle, happy boy into a nasty, angry, miserable person who refuses to listen to any shidduchim because he’s so humiliated and heartbroken? And then they want a shtar mechilah, with no apology? What do they think this is, a pizza shop? They’ll take one extra large mechilah pie to go? Would they like fries and a coke to go with their order?”

“Mrs. Greenstein,” Rabbi Smilowitz said soothingly, “please don’t get excited. Withholding mechilah is considered cruelty. Just be mevater, and everyone will be better off. You can think about it, and call me back.”

Two minutes after Rabbi Smilowitz hung up, Kalman and Shaya walked in from Minchah. “We need to wash and start eating,” Kalman said. “It’s getting late.”

Just then, the doorbell rang. “Special delivery,” a gruff voice said.

The courier handed me an envelope, and asked me to sign. “I’m not expecting any packages,” I said dubiously. But when I looked at the envelope and saw the sender’s name, I knew immediately what was inside.

“I have instructions to wait here for the envelope to be returned,” the courier said. “The sender asked for a signature on the enclosed document.”

I’m standing by the door, clutching the unsigned shtar mechilah, and wondering whether I should present it to Shaya. What would you do?

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 428)

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