| Calligraphy: Pesach 5784 |

Role Play

“We can give Bayla a different role... Let the star role go to someone who deserves it”

“I still think Bayla Davidson would make a great Rachelle. She’s dramatic, she’s fun, she would do the exaggerated parts beautifully, and she has the presence to hold an audience all the way through.”

Sheva Handler is the perfect play director: tall and charismatic, flashing eyes and dramatic intonation, and a knack for turning every sentence into a Speech worthy of the stage. But I’ve worked with her for enough years to know I can stand my ground, because not always is drama everything.

“I agree that Bayla could do it. I just don’t think she should,” I say calmly. “Chavi Bergman did an excellent job in the tryouts, and she’s a hardworking, solid student who never had a chance in the limelight. She deserves the main part.”

Unlike Bayla Davidson. I let the words hang in the air, unsaid but obvious.

“Chavi Bergman doesn’t need it as much as Bayla does.”

“Who says?” I’ve always hated this bias, that the good, quiet girls don’t need the important roles; that the girls who are struggling get promoted to the forefront because they need the boost. Maybe because I spent too many years as the good, quiet student myself. “Maybe she does need it, and she just doesn’t rebel in order to get attention. And I know we’re looking to help girls who are struggling, but giving the majority of the major play parts to girls who ‘need it’ is just giving the wrong message to everyone else. It’s literally rewarding negative behavior. We can give Bayla a different role, make her one of the Friedman kids or something. Let the star role go to someone who deserves it.”

I sit back, glancing around the table. There are too many teachers involved in this; besides Sheva Handler and myself, who run the school production each year, there’s Michal Tessler who directs the drama segments, Goldy Gerkin who manages the choir, and the mechanchos of each grade, here to offer their opinions as we cast the leading roles. And we’ll be running it all by the principal for her approval afterward.

So far, the room seems to be fairly divided over the issue of the starring role. It was Bayla’s mechaneches who had requested that she be assigned a major part in the play — “You don’t realize how much she needs it” — and yet when I’d mentioned sweet, well-behaved Chavi Bergman, a couple of teachers had agreed that she would make a fabulous choice.

Maybe it’s unpopular thinking, but honestly, the whole boost-the-squeakiest-wheel thing makes me nervous. We’ve come so far in the 12 years since I started teaching, and of course I understand that a girl who’s struggling in school, in Yiddishkeit, whatever, could be helped by a positive boost, but sometimes I think it’s gone too far. Bayla Davidson may be troubled, but she also causes trouble — in class, in the hallways, in the principal’s office. Giving her the main role would be a huge boost to her self-esteem, and maybe that would be a step in the right direction, but it also might just give her the message keep doing what you’re doing, and we’ll keep throwing more prizes at you.

Rina Taub, Bayla’s mechaneches, gives me a sidelong glance. “You seem a little… set against giving Bayla a big role,” she says, saccharine-sweet. “Is something going on with her in your classes?”

Oh, the nerve, trying to insinuate that my petty biases are at fault here. Rina Taub wasn’t even in high school when I started teaching, but she has a sparkly diamond ring and a baby, so she’s obviously more of a chinuch expert than I am.

Okay, Malka, don’t go down that route now.

“No, Bayla’s doing great in my classes, actually,” I say calmly. It’s not exactly true, because Bayla doesn’t do much of anything, but she’s not acting out, and that’s definitely saying something. “But having seen the tryouts, I think Chavi would do a better job on the lead, and she isn’t a girl who’s ever gotten to be in the limelight. Bayla had a nice role in drama last year, and she had that solo in the Chagigah choir. Why can’t we give someone else a chance?”

“Because this could literally change Bayla’s life,” Rina says, earnestly. Wow, this conversation could totally be a scene in the play in its own right.

Sheva taps her pen on the table. She’s getting impatient at the stalemate; we need to finish casting the lead parts and call it a night already.

“Mrs. Reich? You teach her Chumash, no? What do you think?”

Laylay looks up, baby blue eyes slightly blank, and tosses back the curls of her blonde sheitel to buy time. I glance down at the table; she’s been scribbling a grocery list, bless her.

“Sorry, I missed that. Go again?”

Sheva fills her in, Rina Taub muttering something to the teacher next to her. I look away.

“Hey, I agree with Malka,” Laylay says, airily. “Have to say that, or I’d be the worst sister ever, huh?”

Well. Nice of someone to back me up, but I have the funny feeling that Laylay actually hadn’t followed the question at all.

And now that the vote is solidly 50-50, we’re at a stalemate for real.

“Ladies, I think we’re going to sleep on this, and Miss Lehrman and I will come to a final decision tomorrow. We’ve kept you long enough,” Sheva says briskly, and the meeting breaks up with no one satisfied, just the way it should be with production casting.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I meet Laylay in the hallway between classes a few days later. She yawns hugely as she passes, rolling her eyes. “Rafi was up half the night. I’m zonked.”

“Aww, poor baby, poor Mommy,” I say automatically. “I can empathize for real, hardly slept either.”

“Oh?” she arches a delicate brow in polite surprise. As if someone who isn’t married, who doesn’t have little ones keeping them up at night, has no right to exhaustion.

Stop reading into things, she’s just curious why.

“Finishing the cast lists,” I explain. “It’s a crazy job, so glad it’s over.”

“Oh, right, the lists. How was? Who got the lead in the end?”

“Not Bayla Davidson, but she’s one of the other major parts. Instead of Shani Bloom.” I frown; I hadn’t been happy about that change. Sheva Handler had insisted that fun, happy-go-lucky Shani would be just as satisfied with a more minor role, but just because she wouldn’t complain didn’t mean she shouldn’t get a chance to shine.

And she deserved the bigger role, she’d done a great job in auditions, and for all her happy-go-lucky attitude, I knew that Shani had it hard at home. She had an older sister with special needs, and a few younger brothers, and a mother who worked long hours and relied on her a lot.

It bothered me that we were downgrading her just because she’d “be fine wherever.”

“Whatever. These lists are never perfect, it’s impossible to satisfy everyone—” I start saying, but Laylay’s eyes are flitting down the hallway, and she’s no longer listening.

“Bracha? Can I speak to you, please?” It’s funny how my sister does this; she never raises her voice, but she somehow pierces with it, flute-like, so the girl at the other end of the corridor spins on her heel, looking surprised and pleased.

Of course. Laylay is one of the most magnetic teachers in the school. She just has that air about her, delicate and elfin and relaxed, but very sincere and warm all at the same time. When she widens her eyes and nods, you feel like the most important person in the world.

And the girls adore her.

It hasn’t always been like that. When she started teaching — five, six years ago — she’d struggled to find her footing. But once she’d done it, once things clicked into place, she’d raced on ahead, perfect golden sheitel streaming behind her, and half the school in pursuit, like some sort of Pied Piper following.

I’m happy for her. I really am.

It’s just that sometimes, it feels like she’s leaving me in the dust.


The Somech office is empty when I punch in the code at eight p.m., which is fine with me. After a full day at school, the peace and quiet to dive into paperwork and phone calls is actually more than welcome.

I log into my Somech email account and begin systematically reviewing messages. Most are from Perl, the organization’s founder and full-time manager: numbers to call, families to follow up with, questions that have come in through the website.

It’s funny how I got involved with Somech Family Services. They’re a very quiet nonprofit; unfortunately, there’s nothing flashy about helping families with a parent in jail. There’s so much shame and stigma involved, families are reluctant to be associated with us, and everything we provide is done with utmost discretion.

A fellow teacher had asked me once if I’d be a tutor for Somech — one of their programs is to provide tutoring, free of charge, to children of the families we help. The organization paid a nominal fee, but it was nothing like I’d get tutoring privately. Still, I did it once a week as a chesed, and at some point it turned into twice a week, and eventually, Mrs. Lederer asked me if I’d join the team of office volunteers and help out with the back-office of the organization, too.

I don’t tutor these days, but I do a whole lot more.

There’s a message blinking on my phone; it’s Mrs. B. They’re fairly new to the program, and I’m still getting to know the family, what they need, where they’re struggling most.

“Hi, Malka. I’m calling about the tutoring services you arrange. I spoke to Perl, she told me you’re the one who deals with this. It’s for my 13-year-old, Chanie, who’s really struggling in school. She needs….”

The message is long, and I scribble a few notes as the mother talks. Math, science, low motivation. Poor girl; 13 is just a really rough age to go through such a trauma, although who am I kidding, being younger or older doesn’t make it much easier.

“She’s really a little reluctant to get help, and I think the tutor needs to be someone who can get through to her somehow,” Mrs. B. finished, hesitantly. “I just really hope you have someone who can help, because she’s failing school and it’s just—” Her voice breaks.

I know exactly which tutor this girl needs. Tziporah Bloch. She’s a marvel; compassionate and smart, patient and warm, gentle and yet very on top of the kids’ progress. She’s our star tutor, and while she could be making more money working full-time privately, she always donates several hours a week to Somech at a reduced rate.

I dial Tziporah while I begin reviewing other messages, sorting emails into folders and replying to the easy questions with practiced ease.

“Hey, Malka.”

“Tziporah! How’s it going?”

We’re not exactly friends, but years of collaborating over helping kids has made us more than just acquaintances. That’s why the hesitation in her voice jumps out at me. She doesn’t sound like herself, and I’m wondering why.

I fill her in about 13-year-old Chanie B., but she doesn’t really respond.

“I’m sorry… I wish I could help. I’m really just too full these days…” she trails off, and I’m left wondering what I don’t understand.

“I’m sure you are, you’re tops, but I thought maybe you could squeeze in an extra. Your time seems miraculously expandable,” I say, lightly.

Tziporah gives a little he-he. “Look, I’ll tell you the truth,” she says, hesitating. “I feel bad to say this, but — Somech is really behind in payments, and it’s just — I can’t take on another case right now. I mean, I anyway charge a really reduced rate for the organization, but I can’t work for free. I’m sure you understand.”

She hasn’t been paid? Wait, what? “Of course you can’t,” I tell her. I’m actually mortified that I’m calling to push her to take on more when she hasn’t been paid in weeks.

And I’m nervous. If Tziporah, one of our star assets, is not being paid, what about the other tutors? How are we going to retain our carefully cultivated team?

I think of Chanie B. Of all the desperate children scraping by in school thanks to Somech tutors.

They need her.

We need her.

I make a quick decision. “How much do we owe you, as of now?” I ask Tziporah.

She names an amount quickly. It’s obvious that this is her foremost concern right now.

I open a new tab and log into my own bank account. “I’m transferring you the money right now. And please… if this happens again, let me know, okay?”

“Oh, wow, thank you.” Tziporah’s back, the old warmth I remember coming through again. “I didn’t realize you handle this — I kept reaching out to the accounting department.”

Accounting department, ha. I glance at the next desk. It’s my friend Faigy’s. I do intake and manage the tutoring and therapy programs; she does accounting and manages the gifts and events. Then there’s Perl and two other women who handle the food and clothing programs. It’s a small team, but we’re all in, heart and soul.

I’ll have to talk to Faigy, figure out the money. And Perl, if this is a larger issue. But for now, Chanie B. can have her tutor.

I’m just wrapping up with Tziporah when Perl herself bustles in. I open my mouth to bring up the financial issue, but change my mind. She looks so stressed out, I ask her instead, “Is something wrong?”

“Oh, Malka, you are just the person. It’s — I honestly have no idea what to do.”

I’m used to Perl, so I just mm-hmm and go over to the coffee machine to make her a drink.

“I’m just so frazzled. And I can’t believe I did this to us. But you know that whole fundraiser thing we’re planning?”

I nod. Of course I know; we were all happy when Perl agreed to run one of those fundraising campaigns. Somech really needs the money — apparently, even more than I’d thought.

“Well, I reached out to this marketing agency, ColorFly or whatever they call themselves. And we’re paying them a fortune that we don’t have, but I was hoping we’d make it all back with the campaign, right? And then today I met with them and they were asking me all about ambassadors, who we can have to take on pages, and do you know, it hadn’t even occurred to me that that would be a problem?”

I throw a heaping spoonful of sugar into the coffee and wordlessly hand it to Perl. She looks inordinately grateful.

“You’re a doll. Well anyway, I was thinking, there’s five of us who can take pages, and maybe some friends and family, right? But here they are, the agency, telling me that the only way to reach our goal is to have dozens of ambassadors. Dozens! I don’t even know if we have ten!”

I shake my head. We probably don’t, but wow, I could see where this was going.

“The problem is, they keep saying we should bring on our clients — the families — or our previous clients, as ambassadors. And of course, that’s just what we can’t do, because of the stigma, and the sensitivity, and all that. But without the numbers, we’re stuck. And the whole campaign, everything we’ve invested—” She spreads out her hands helplessly.

I think fast. She’s right — we can’t reach out to the families themselves. It’s just not possible; it’s not even fair to ask. But there are so many people who would help, if only they knew, if only they were approached in a way that spoke to them, that made things personal —

Making things personal.

“Wait,” I say, slowly. “What if… what if we approach families, asking them to be an ambassador in a sort of… ‘adopt a family’ way? What if for each family we have enrolled for our services, we find one family to ‘adopt’ them — without knowing the details, of course — and give them a fundraising goal to match? We can give them the bare outline — what size family, some of the basic needs we’re funding — and they can have a fundraising page that they blast to their friends and family, with the knowledge that they’re ‘adopting’ one family in need and raising money to help them. Could that work?”

Perl’s face lights up, and I think she actually wants to give me a hug.

“Malka, you’re the best,” she says fervently. “I love it. It’s genius. Absolute genius. It will take work to arrange, but I can see it working — I have so many friends and acquaintances who would take on a manageable fundraising goal like that, if we get really personal… yes, it’s brilliant. I can’t wait to tell them this idea. I have a feeling it’s going to change everything.”

Solving Somech’s crisis feels good.

Having a run-in with a student in the middle of an 11th-grade class… doesn’t.

It’s Bayla Davidson, of course. Bayla Davidson, who I’ve just cast as Mrs. Friedman, one of the major roles in this year’s production.

In the play, she’s a model eishes chayil, running a busy home and trying to uncover the secret of her mysterious live-in mother’s helper.

In real life, Bayla is not much of a model at all.

“And so, girls, if you look inside the Rashi you’ll see—”

There’s an outbreak of loud giggles from the back. I breathe in, deeply, through my nose.

She’s never done this before in my class. But right now, I’m watching Bayla Davidson actually instigate a little tea party, right in the middle of a Chumash lesson.

She’s got refreshments and even some paper goods, and she’s handing something out to her friends at the desks nearby, which have mysteriously moved much closer together than they’re supposed to be.

In the past I’ve ignored the low-level whispering, the smirks, the stifled giggles. But this is something I can’t ignore.

“Girls,” I say, keeping my voice very calm and low. “Please put away everything that is distracting you from class.”

Most of the girls look abashed and clear their desks, but Bayla just glares up at me.

“Oh, are you going to kick me out of the play now?” she asks, apropos of nothing.

I’m startled, but rebound fast enough to say evenly, “This is Chumash class, not play practice. Let’s leave the play out of things, and put the food away.”

She makes a face, but then, ever so slowly, begins clearing her desk.

And I head back to the front of the room, slightly rattled from her comment about the play.

What am I missing here?

“I need a favor from you.”

Laylay has that little-girl voice on again, soft and beseeching. The voice she’d used throughout our teen years, when she’d asked to borrow my clothing, or for me to do her chores so she could flit out on one of her many, many social invitations. (“I totally forgot Libi’s birthday sleepover was tonight! Please, please, please, please….”)

More recently, the calls have been for teaching help: an idea for a great intro to a class, tips on managing a disruptive student, a request to sub or switch classes with me if she needs to rearrange her schedule….

I don’t sigh, because I’m a good sister, but I don’t really have the patience to talk shop just now. And while we’d spent hours on the phone during her first couple of years on the job, Laylay’s really found her feet — more than that. She doesn’t need my help for that, not anymore.

“I called around half the world, and I just can’t find a single girl willing…” Laylay’s saying, and I realize she doesn’t want advice, or substituting, or ideas from me. She needs a babysitter.

Something heavy and bitter clogs my throat.

“… a couple of hours. Like, twelve till two, two thirty the latest.”


“Yes, don’t ask. Mrs. Mitnick asked me to come in for a meeting, and Shua is out of town — his father’s not doing great. So I’m really stuck.”

“A meeting with Mrs. Mitnick? On a Sunday?”

“Yeah, she asked me to come in, she wanted to discuss something, and there’s never time on a school day.”

“Tell me about it.” Sunday’s my free day, too. And while Laylay doesn’t teach most afternoons and has Friday off, I work full-time plus at school.

I have a meeting scheduled later with Mira from that marketing agency. Apparently, they were so enamored with the idea that they wanted me to come onboard  the “campaign team,” going so far as to arrange the meeting for a Sunday so I could make it, so that’s not something I’m missing. And I’d planned to spend the early part of the day relaxing, reading a little, maybe going to the mall with Faigy. In the evening, I wanted to catch up on some work for Somech, and then I had a shiur to attend.

If I’d spend three hours playing nanny to my adorable nieces and nephews… well, I could wave goodbye to the relaxing and reading, and I’d probably be too wiped to do the mall with Faigy, too.

“She called you, like, now?” I couldn’t resist asking.

“Noooo, like on Thursday, but I figured I’d call my regular babysitting girls after Shabbos, and turns out no one can do it.” Laylay turns pleading. “Please? I would pay you, but I know you’d never take it. But I’ll get you sushi for lunch. And I’ll pick up a mint milkshake from Iced for you on my way home.”

She knows me.

“I’ll do it. But bring the kids here, okay? I’m not schlepping out.”

“You’re the best, best, best.” Laylay’s fervent blessings follow me up the stairs. Lounging with coffee time is over; I need to make myself presentable.

Saving my little sister is one of the things I do best.

It’s always been that way; Malka and Laylay, Laylay and Malka. The only girls in the family, after a string of boys; I got the name Malka but it was always Laylay who was the princess.

She was the youngest, the bas zekunim, but she’s also the biggest charmer I know.

And I… well, I’m the practical one, the independent one. The academic and studious one.

The quiet and responsible one?

I shrug that away. Been around that block enough times; no need to spend more mental energy comparing myself to my sister. Besides, we both have our things.

Only I… I always seem to be the one stepping in to compensate when Laylay needs it.

Tutoring her before her math regents. Helping her memorize her lines for her leading roles in the school play. Pulling strings to land her a coveted teaching job when she moved back from Eretz Yisrael, starry-eyed and idealistic and the mother of a delicious one-year-old baby.

The delicious one-year-old is now seven; Laylay’s gone from floundering new Yahadus teacher in the ninth and tenth grades to one of the most popular mechanchos who teaches ninth-grade Navi and Yahadus across most of the school; and I’m… Malka, solid and dependable, 11th-grade Chumash and 12th-grade Historiah and ninth- and tenth-grade Dinim, substituting here and there for other teachers’ maternity leaves, and running the school production on the side.

Still single. Still solid. Still available to save the day, whenever the need arises….

And there’s the doorbell. The troops have arrived.

Laylay’s late coming back, but that’s nothing I didn’t expect, so all’s good.

“I’m so sorry! I’m so, so sorry!” She’s clutching a tray of sushi and a mint milkshake, and her crossbody bag is bouncing behind her. “Don’t ask! That meeting took forever — and then there was crazy, crazy traffic….”

Her kids bound out of the playroom. “Moooommy! Tante Malka made cookies with us! And we had pizza for lunch! And….”

“Ahhh, best aunt ever! And best sister,” Laylay says, turning to me. “Thank you so much again. You really saved me. What a meeting, whew.”

She takes off her jacket and plops down on the couch. “Did you know that Mrs. Frankel is leaving?”

“Whaaaaat?” Mrs. Frankel is one of the school’s mainstays, popular mechaneches and GO advisor too. She runs most of the extracurricular activities in the school, which means I’ve ended up working with her a lot, because I always seem to be the second-in-command when it comes to these things.

The shlock worker, you mean. The one who can stay late and come early and spend all the time in the world working with the girls at night

I hate traveling down this road. I need to stop it right here.

“She’s really leaving?” I ask Laylay. “But that means — who’s going to take over? Her classes, her extracurricular…” My voice trails off. Laylay’s cheeks are tinged pink. “You?”

“Not the classes,” Laylay says quickly. “Mrs. Mitnick was asking me about… about GO advisor.” Her hand flies to her mouth. “Oh, but I wasn’t supposed to say anything! Forget it, okay? I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

My insides freeze.

GO advisor.


Only the most coveted, chashuv teacher position in the entire school.

“I won’t say a word,” I tell Laylay. My voice comes out too high. “I’ll just — I have to go now. I have to meet someone. We’ll speak, okay?”

It’s not true.

The meeting isn’t for another hour and a half, and it’s just a 20-minute drive away, but I just don’t want to sit around in the house with Laylay for even one minute longer.

We’re meeting at a café in a small strip mall. I park and kill the engine, and my mind floods over.

Mrs. Frankel is leaving.

Laylay is taking her place.

Laylay, who cried to me night after night during her first year of teaching. She was tired, so tired, and she was expecting her second, and she was also just dumbfounded at how much work it was to teach.

At the amount of preparation it took for a single class. At the colossal piles of tests she found herself dragging home to grade. At the delicate balance of managing individual relationships with students while setting boundaries, of holding a classroom and still targeting each student.

And I’d listened. I’d thought up creative teaching aids and designed worksheets and PowerPoints and graded piles of quizzes for her so she could just skim through, check the grade, and write a cute comment at the top with her trademark little smiley face.

And I’d spent so much time advising her. She was a natural with the girls; they’d always loved her, but she needed advice on managing a classroom, setting boundaries, differentiating for the needs of the students, keeping the class going in the right direction when some smart girl tried to derail it with a deep hashkafah question tangent.

She’s a great teacher these days.

And so, if I may say so myself, am I.

She’s been teaching for six years.

I’ve been teaching for 12.

But she’s offered the promotion to GO advisor and head of extracurricular, because she… she…

She wears a wig.

No, that’s not fair. She’s offered the promotion because she is a great, energetic, engaging teacher, with a strong rapport with the girls.

And so am I.

But I’m different. We’re the unlikeliest sisters you can imagine, from looks to personalities to the way we speak.

I’m the kind of teacher who commands a class from the start, and captures hearts later. I’m organized and disciplined and my classes begin promptly and end perfectly synced with the dismissal bell. When girls come to speak to me, it’s scheduled and prearranged, and we talk quietly in one of the empty offices; it’s not the flock-around-at-recess kind of vibe. But I can do extracurricular; I manage the production, have stepped in to help lead numerous Chagigahs, and go on every shabbaton and graduation trip and what have you, while Laylay begs off the extras to enjoy a luxurious day off at home.

My hands are shaking a little. I’m angry. Am I angry? I don’t do angry, I do calm and rational and clearheaded, but now….

Rina Taub’s patronizing comments and Bayla Davidson’s sudden rebellion and Laylay calling me to babysit on a Sunday morning because I have nothing better to do, right? — it’s all coming together in a snowball of anger and pain and the stark unfairness of it all.

And instead of calling Faigy to join me for some very much needed retail therapy, I need to sit in a prim little coffee shop and smile politely at some woman who wants me to help with the marketing for a fundraising campaign that I never signed up to lead.

When I sit down opposite Mira Schoen, I need to force my lips into a smile, but when we start, somehow, I find myself swept along with her enthusiasm.

We talk about the organization and the campaign. Perl’s there, too, and one of Mira’s assistants, and we discuss my idea, building on it, expanding it, and before I know it, two hours have passed and there’s actually a campaign taking shape, something plausible, something possible.

“So, I hear you’re the great mind behind the ambassador adopt-a-family idea,” Mira says to me, at the end, as the other women leave.

I give a small shrug. “I was just trying to think how we could make it personal, you know?”

“Oh, of course, that’s the secret, but it’s finding the application that’s the hard part.” Mira pauses, regards me curiously. “Anyway, I know Perl Lederer founded the organization, but what’s your role? Are you the manager?”

“Manager?” I actually laugh out loud. “No, I teach full-time. I just volunteer for Somech a couple times a week. I do intake and referrals.”

“Ah.” Mira nods. “Well. That’s really amazing, how involved you are. And how passionate. Really impressive.”

This is getting uncomfortable. “Thanks,” I murmur, trying to think how to best end the conversation.

“And besides that,” Mira continues. “You have a very creative way of solutionizing. Out of the box. Innovative.”

She sounds like she’s writing an ad.

“You work as a teacher, you said? Would you consider changing your career?” Mira gives me a wide, lipsticked smile. “Because I think you’re a natural at marketing. And we need someone like you to manage our nonprofit fundraising campaign projects. Onboarding, strategy, and campaign management. Can we offer you the job?”

It’s a ridiculous idea.

It’s a ridiculous idea to leave my job — my job of 12 years, which is as comfortable and beloved as an old pair of fuzzy slippers — and go start afresh in a new role, a new field, an entirely new career.

And yet… those old slippers. One day you look back at them and you’re like, how on earth am I still wearing these.

Maybe this ridiculous idea is just what I need.

Because the alternative is to stay in this school, teaching the same classes and doing the same things, year in and year out, watching my younger sister get a major promotion while I sit on the sidelines.

At the agency, no one seemed to care if I had a ring and a wig or not. They valued my opinions, my ideas, my time, me.

But… marketing? Really, Malka? Instead of teaching Torah? Instead of a job you find so meaningful, where you thrive….

Thrive. Yeah, right. I’ve done my time, all 12 years of it, and I’m still here, stuck with the same subjects and the same roles I’ve had since I was in my early twenties.

Maybe, I think, I should come back married. Let them offer me a job then.

My head is swirling as I enter the 11th-grade classroom. I take attendance without really focusing on what I’m doing, and it’s only when I’m several minutes into the class that I notice the empty seat near the back.

Bayla Davidson isn’t here.

My uncharitable reaction to that is good. One less thing to deal with today.

I teach on autopilot, relying on years of experience to ensure that the lesson rolls off my tongue smoothly. I take questions and stroll up and down the aisles and manage to time my final sentence for the exact moment the bell rings, which means I get to sweep out of the room on that high note without any more need for interaction.

And walk straight into a little knot of girls surrounding a laughing Bayla Davidson.

She looks up. Her eyes meet mine.

“Oops,” she says. Mockingly. “Did I miss your class? Oh, well.”

If not for that comment, I might have ignored her. Just leave it be, and call her aside later on, when she isn’t surrounded by snickering tenth graders (why aren’t they in class?). But this is something I can’t ignore.

“We missed you, too, Bayla,” I say, focusing on her alone. “Why don’t you step aside with me, and I can fill you in on what you missed.”

“Ah, I’m not going to take your precious free time, Miss Lehrman,” she drawls.

I give her a look, and she subsides a little. “That wasn’t an offer you can refuse,” I say quietly. Heaving a great sigh of annoyance, she detaches herself from the coterie and follows me down the hallway.

“I don’t know what you even want from my life,” Bayla says dramatically, like it’s a line from the play.

Honestly, I don’t know either. I don’t know why I’m here or why I shouldn’t quit my job tomorrow and go work for Mira Schoen, somewhere where people actually want to hear what I have to say.

But I’ve always been conscientious. And as long as I’m here, I’m going to do my job.

I take out a stack of papers, and begin showing Bayla what she’s missed.

“You know I’m not gonna make up this work,” she says, rolling her eyes.

I know she hasn’t done a stitch of class work all year, but suddenly, I’ve had enough of turning a blind eye to it.

“Yes, you will,” I say lightly. “You’ll stay after school this afternoon and copy the notes, and you’ll show them to me when you’re done.”

“After school? But we have play practice. Or are you kicking me out the play? I knew you would. I knew it was too good to be true and that you’d be looking for a chance to—”

Play practice, right, I’d forgotten that. And she’s harping on about getting kicked out of the play again; what’s that all about?

“Bayla,” I say, cutting her off, “this has nothing to do with the play. This is class, that’s production. You’re doing a great job in the—”

“No, I’m not.”

Now I’m flummoxed. I tilt my head to one side. “I’m talking about the play,” I say.

“And so am I.” She crosses her arms.

I look at her, puzzled, and something in her eyes is… calling. Asking for something.


I sit down and motion to Bayla to sit, too.

“Bayla,” I say, quietly. “Is something going on with the play?”

She presses her lips together and shakes her head. Too vigorously.

I wait.

“I’m not…” she starts saying, then stops.

I stay quiet.

And then she bursts. “It’s not working. I’m pathetic. I can’t do it. I can’t memorize a thing, never manage to keep up in class, why did anyone think I could memorize so many lines for a stupid play?” She picks up the papers I’ve just given her and flings them down on the floor. “Last year was fine, it was more acting, not so many long speeches — but this one is impossible. All these long waffly conversations, and I never remember which lines come first or second and then I just freeze, and Mrs. Tessler thinks I’m doing it on purpose and I just can’t, okay? And I know everyone’s waiting for a chance to kick me out of this stupid production, so just do it already, okay?”

There are tears spurting out of her eyes now, and I’m so shocked I need to remind myself to answer now, analyze later.

“That sounds really frustrating,” I say, trying to pick words from the confusion in my brain — Bayla Davidson, struggling with her lines, acting out to cover up her embarrassment — “It isn’t easy, memorizing lines for a big role.”

Everything’s falling into place: Bayla acting up in my classes, wanting to be kicked out for misbehavior rather than be exposed publicly as a failure….

“Well, I can’t do it, I’m the biggest idiot, okay? So just give my part to someone else and say it’s cuz I’m too chutzpahdig or whatever you want.”

I look at her and my heart breaks just a little.

Poor girl.

“We chose you for the part because we know you can pull it off well,” I say. “We chose you because you have the talent and the knack for acting. You can take a flat character and bring her to life. Memorizing lines is hard, yes, but there are tricks to it, too.” I think of those hours of helping Laylay memorize her lines, back in the day. I had this down to a science. “You can ad lib. You can get prompted. We can figure out a way to have some of your lines with you on stage, maybe hidden in that recipe book in the kitchen scene. Like a mini-prompter or something.”

She doesn’t respond, but she’s listening.

I pick up the papers from the floor, stack them tidily, and hand them back to her. “You’ll make these notes up, I’ll help you with that. And then we’ll figure out the play, too. And no one needs to know, okay?”

This time, she takes the papers and tucks them in her bag.

And then she’s out of the door, but as it closes behind her, I think I discern a mumbled thank-you.

Mira Schoen is calling. Again.

It’s Sunday and I’m cleaning my room for Pesach, never mind that Purim has only just passed. Never too early, right? At least that’s what my mother always says.

The play is this week. It’s been a crazy few weeks, pre-production is always like that, with the inevitable last-minute crises and the changes and the dance heads in tears that there’s no way they’ll get all the steps perfect in time.

There are the soundtracks and the spotlights and the mics and a million technical details to arrange and confirm, and actually a quiet morning cleaning my room makes a nice change.

Except that Mira from ColorFly Marketing is waiting for an answer.

I sigh and pick up the phone.

“Malka! I was beginning to think I had the wrong number saved.”

“Hi, Mira. No, this is me, it’s just been hectic. I’m sorry.”

“Busy saving Somech? Or something else?” she jokes. “Listen, I’m calling to remind you about our offer. We’ve been discussing it some more here at the agency, and we can offer you a very nice compensation package.” She names a figure, and my lips actually part a little.

“I know you wanted some more time to think it through, but we’d really like an answer this week. Can you get back to me within the next few days, please?”

This week.

The production, the final couple weeks of school before Pesach vacation, so much going on, so little time to think.

“I’ll do my best,” I tell Mira, and then I sit down on my bed, between the pile of clothing to toss and the one to give away, and the pile of unsures and the pile of offer Laylays, and I picture a day in the life of Malka Lehrman, marketing strategist.

Imagine working in an office. Mature women, no fighting feisty teens. No fighting an administration to take you seriously, even without a wig. This would be corporate, and they’ve already proved that no one is judging me on my status.

No Laylay leapfrogging me to a plum job in the school’s leadership because she happened to get married first.

No patronizing remarks from teachers who may be younger and less experienced, but are automatically granted respect because they’ve graduated shidduchim at age 20.

No Bayla Davidson….


She’d come to me exactly twice, for help with her lines. We’d worked on a couple scenes together, and then, somehow, she’d just clicked, her confidence returned, and she decided that actually, she could do it on her own.

She hasn’t had a miraculous turnaround, by any stretch of the imagination (though, thankfully, there have been no more tea parties in Chumash class). But that last time we spoke, she actually looked up at me for a brief moment of eye contact, and blurted, “You know you’re the only teacher who I told about this.”

Okay, and?

I wondered where she was going.

“I wasn’t going to tell you, either. But I thought you — you’d get it. And you did.”

By that point she was blushing, furiously, and I was slightly shell-shocked that snarky, snide Bayla Davidson was actually having an honest conversation with a teacher.

“I’m happy you felt comfortable reaching out, because it would’ve been a shame for you not to go ahead with the play. You’re great for the role,” I said, trying to shift the conversation.

But Bayla plowed on. “They also asked me what’s up. Mrs. Taub. Mrs. Reich.” Here she blushes and stumbles a little, yes, we’re sisters, get over it, I want to say, but I don’t. “But I just felt like — they wouldn’t get it. They have these sweet perfect little lives and… and—” Now she actually had stopped short, looking a little stricken. “But I thought you, you’d understand me.”

Understand what it means to struggle, she meant.

Back in the cramped supply room, which was official play territory, I’d given Bayla a small, professional smile, and moved the conversation on. But now, sitting on my bed with the debris of around a decade spilled out of my closets to wade through, organize, and clean up, I turn the words over and over in my mind.

Bayla looked at me as someone she could confide in, because of my life story. Because I was living proof that not everything came easy, and you could get up and do things anyway.

Years flit away and I know there have been other students, too, a hundred, maybe a thousand lives I’ve touched, hearts I’ve lifted.

I have my answer for Mira.

Seder night.

White tablecloth and red wine and noisy chatter of my brothers and their families, Laylay and her kids, off-key singing and squeals and spills and family.

“Shiri, princess, you’re going to — oh no,” Laylay groans, as the grape juice tips and a deep purple stain oozes across the front of her daughter’s new Yom Tov dress. “I knew this would happen, but you know how it goes, they need to wear their new outfit for the Seder, they just can’t wait anymore.”

She leans over to dab at the spill, but there’s not much to salvage. Shiri bursts into tears.

My sister-in-law Mindy comes into the room. “Laylay, your baby’s crying.”

From the next room, some kids’ game turns suspiciously noisy, with a crashing sound followed by a yelp that sends half the adults scurrying over.

By the time Laylay slides back into her seat beside me, we’ve advanced two pages in the Hagaddah.

“The Arba’ah Banim? Gotcha. I taught that this year, to one of the grades.” Laylay shakes her head. “Oh am I grateful that they can’t see me right now.”

I snicker. What would her students think, seeing the poised, polished, perfect Mrs. Reich juggling a kid in a stained dress with a crying baby and the other kids fighting with their cousins in the next room…

“They have such perfect happy little lives…” Bayla Davidson whispers in my head, and I look at Laylay again, and I know that for all the wonderful, wonderful blessings, it’s also not so simple. It can be frantic and frenetic and exhausting, too, and yet Laylay and the others show up to teach, because they have what to give from the place they’re at, and I….

I have what to give, too. Maybe something that women who followed the classic path in life can never offer.

“I’m so glad I told Mrs. Mitnick no, in the end,” Laylay continues. “I realized, I’m overwhelmed enough as it is. Even if she cuts my teaching hours — it’s constant, it’s hectic, Debby Frankel literally didn’t breathe during major breakout seasons and Chagigah and stuff. It’s not for me, not at this stage of life.”

“Oh?” I’m surprised; GO advisor is a huge honor, and probably a nice salary increase, too.

“Yes… she was upset, asked me to change my mind, but in the end she understood.” Laylay shifts Benny to her other arm. “I think she’s planning to offer it to you, actually.”

So many thoughts — am I the second best then, the second choice? — but then again, who really knows what the cheshbon was here? Laylay teaches fewer hours than I do, and come to think of it, I already do production — who knows, really, why the offer went first to my sister?

K’neged Arba’ah Banim the men chant, and I see four sons, four students, a thousand different paths in life with all their nuances and complexities and potentials, just as long as they step out on that stage and play their role to perfection.

“You’d do a great job with the GO,” Laylay says, a little wistfully.

Sparkling clarity floods my mind, my heart, like the moment I told Mira Schoen that I’m so grateful, but won’t be taking her up on her offer.

“Thanks for the compliment,” I say lightly. “But I’m happy with my job the way it is.”

And then I turn back to the Haggadah, and, like a sigh of release, I gently turn the page.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1008)

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