| Family Tempo |


She chose this life, so why did she feel so stifled?


t’s not really the ants. Or the freshly fried schnitzel crawling with scurrying black things.

They’re not really the reason that she’s perched on the edge of an ugly beige bathtub, bawling and ruining her mascara.

They’re just, well, the final straw.

Tehillah slides down to the tiled floor (that always looks grimy, no matter what) and dials Sheva. It’s eight a.m. in America; her friend is nauseatingly cheery.

Chamudah,” Sheva cackles, in a shabby imitation of the seminary cook. “Chamudah, it’s an ant. It’s teeny-tiny-piiiiitzky. Who’s bigger, you or the ant?”

She wants to throw the phone across the room.

“Seriously, Tills.” Sheva sobers up. “I know it’s horrible. But it’s just ants. Go to the supermarket, buy a spray, you’ll get rid of them. I had them a few weeks ago, and it cleared up really fast.”

“Really? You had ants? In your three-bedroom mansion?”

Sheva laughs. “Ants aren’t native to Ashdod, honey. We get them in Teaneck, too.” Her voice is muffled. “Listen, I need to get to work. You’ll be fine. You’ll make grilled cheese for supper. I promise, he’ll survive just this once.”

“What if I tried the schnitzel already? I’m fleishigs.”

Sheva snorts. “Go kill ants.”

She hates cooking. She hates grilled cheese. And she really, really, really hates ants.

The other girls at work toss around recipes like they’re ping-pong balls — just fry an onion, add the schnitzel, and sear, make a sweet-and-sour type of sauce, pour it over. The kind of recipes that leave her completely bewildered, like, what are the measurements?

Tehillah shakes the thoughts loose, opens Outlook. She still can’t believe she’s sitting here, doing medical billing, just like every other kollel wife. But isn’t this what she wanted?

An email from Mr. Klor, the words FW: TIME SENSITIVE RESPOND ASAP blazing across the subject line. She opens it, heart skipping a beat, and then realizes he’s cc’ed the whole team. Miriam’s already responded, bless her.

Miriam, Goldy, Breindy, Chavi, and the others. Sweet girls, all of them, fluent enough in English, but with the slight Israeli accent that’s always a giveaway. They grew up here in Ashdod, American-born parents living a few blocks over, content in their bubbles: home, family, friends.

Tzvi’s like that too; his parents, his kollel, everything just a few minutes on the bus. He’s lived here all his life, and it was a given that they’d settle here after they got married. She’d been fine with it. She still was fine with it. Even if she feels like the only born-and-bred American in the entire city. At least there’s the ocean.

She snorts and logs into work. Walks on the beach aside, she has work to do.

But it’s annoyingly, predictably, boring.

A perfect fit for what her life has become.

When she surfaces two hours later, the desks around her are empty. Coffee time. Sure enough, most of her coworkers are grouped around the coffee machine in the small kitchenette, chatting animatedly in a mix of Hebrew and English.

“Tehillah, you should join this, you’d love it.” Goldy holds out an ad and Tehillah squints.

“It’s a drama class. Improv, you call it? A lady from Yerushalayim, she does these amazing groups, and she’s doing a class on Sunday night. You should come!”

Drama class? That didn’t seem the type, somehow, for her domestic coworkers. Weren’t they doing sponja in the evenings? Or ironing?

“You’re the type to enjoy acting, no?” Breindy asks, and Tehillah almost rolls her eyes. Enjoy it? Of course. But… in another lifetime.

“And it’s in English. She’s American. Like you!”

Tehillah half-smiles. An American woman from Yerushalayim trying to bring creative sparkle to the staid Ashdod. It just doesn’t fit, somehow.

“Where is it?”

“We can walk together!” Miriam offers. She lives two buildings away from Tehillah.

She imagines Sheva’s voice: Helllooooo? Earth to Tehillah? Of coooourse you’re going, Mrs. Head-of-Every-Production. You’re gonna blow ’em outta the water!

Problem is, blowing a few hundred Ramat Eshkol-type ladies out of the water at a local seminary performance seems easier, somehow, than impressing these girls who seem to have it all: the native Hebrew, the easy English, the family, the friends, the Israeli toughness, the American confidence.

But — what better way to integrate than to join them?

“I’ll come.”

She makes salmon for supper. Not cheap — the ready-cut fillets in the supermarket — but this way, she avoids cutting a huge slab of fish, and she actually knows how to prepare salmon fillets.

So what if it’s considered fancy for a weeknight supper? Let poor Tzvi enjoy the meal for a change — not that he ever complains about grilled cheese; but she minds.

And everything that’s bothering her — work and her lack of a social life and the endless drudgery of running a house — none of that is his fault. He deserves something better than grilled cheese.

As for herself, she’d chosen this life, she’d wanted it. Wants it. Right?

She slides the glistening fillets into the oven and wrinkles her nose. The problem with making salmon is that everything smells of fish. The kitchen, the whole apartment, her hands.

She doesn’t love the cheap, off-brand soap Tzvi picked up. But it does the job, and when she sits down on the sofa, with a half hour to spare until Tzvi walks in, the fishy smell has all but dissipated.

Her hands itch, she wants to do something, play music, get up on stage, paint. But her art supplies are somewhere deep in their cavernous machsan (bigger than their entire apartment). As for performing, where exactly would she do that? On the narrow strip of floor tiles between the kitchen and the dining room, which barely fits the table, chairs, a small sofa? Ha.

She could play guitar, she supposes, but somehow, even when she lifts the polished wood onto her lap and brushes her fingers over the strings, the sound is lackluster.

Face it. This isn’t your life now. Try learning to love keeping house. Isn’t that creative, too?

She shoves the guitar aside. What is she even doing here?

What made her do this, jump into a life that’s just so vastly different from everything she’s ever known?

She thinks of Mrs. Taub’s kitchen: music and laughter and conversation. Mrs. Taub in earnest conversation with students, or working on the play script at a corner of the cluttered dining room table. But Mrs. Taub is… older. A seminary teacher. And Mrs. Taub never knew her old life.

Her own dining room table is bare. The lone bookshelf is crammed with seforim. It’s wonderful, it’s special, she’s so proud of Tzvi; but, she realizes as a wave of sadness sweeps over her, it isn’t her home at all.

It wasnÕt supposed to be this way.

When Tehillah first realized she wanted something different, she was just beginning 12th grade. It came as a surprise to find that while she loved her friends and the extracurricular activities they shared, what invigorated her most were the Hebrew classes: Hashkafah and Tefillah and Chumash, the way the teachers were so dynamic, so connected.

Her homeroom teacher, Mrs. Schorr, encouraged her to learn more. To ask. She began to frequent her teachers’ Shabbos meals, wear longer skirts. Mrs. Schorr had helped her with seminary applications, guiding her into a school like nothing her friends would attend. It didn’t matter; she was on her own journey, and she loved every second of it.

Her parents’ vague disapproval was a heavy, gray storm cloud hovering overhead, casting a pall over her golden experiences in the Holy Land. We love you, Tehillah, but isn’t this a little… extreme? Ultimately, they came around — for the most part.


Until the doubts had come, like a rainstorm, beginning small, did I feel something, turning into a steady pitter-patter, and then a drumbeat pounding mercilessly against her brain, with the drudgery and the dreariness and the strangeness of her new life. The endless tasks of running a home, the ache as she works a mindless office job with girls who seem to love nothing better than the lifestyle she’s finding so challenging …

Tehillah sits, frozen, as the salmon burns in the oven and images flash through her brain: Tehillah, 14, taking art classes; Tehillah, 12th grade, leading the school’s drama society; Tehillah, the seminary production star; Tehillah, the kollel-wife-working-in-a-medical-billing-office.

Who am I? What have I done?

The American improv lady has a long, wavy sheitel, and when she claps her hands and smiles, the curls bounce comically over her shoulders.

“Ladies! I’m Leah, and I’m excited to be here. We’re going to begin with a game called Action and Justify. We’ll need two volunteers …”

Action and Justify. Cute. That was tenth-grade drama club. Tehillah considers volunteering for the first round, but something holds her back.

Instead, Breindy and Shani get up.

“So, you’ll do an action — anything at all — without speaking,” Leah instructs. “And you — Shani — you’ll justify what she’s doing. Say something about it. Then, Breindy, you agree with her and continue the conversation.”

Breindy claps her hands. Shani looks around, self-conscious, and then says, “Ummm… you’re applauding at the end of a choir?”

“Maybe the choir we made at the end of the year with Morah Hertz, remember? At the last minute the sound system went down. No one heard a thing,” someone calls out from the audience.

“And they all clapped just like that, like being polite, but really it was a disaster.”

The girls are laughing. Comments fly thick and fast, morphing rapidly from English to Hebrew.

Leah waves her hands in the air. “That was a great start, ladies! Let’s try another pair, something more exciting.”

“I’ll do it,” Tehillah hears herself say. Miriam offers to partner with her.

Tehillah thinks for a moment, then reaches down and makes a deep, sweeping motion with her hand.

“I have noooooo idea what you’re doing,” Miriam says.

Tehillah repeats the motion, wordlessly.

“Go on, say something,” Leah says, encouragingly. “Think what she could be doing and go with that.”

“Oh… okay… like, shoveling snow? I guess.”

“That is totally not what shoveling snow looks like,” someone says. “Have you ever even seen snow, Miriam?”

The others laugh. Miriam puts on a too-deep voice and says, “Thanks for clearing out our yard, Moshe.”

“Sure, that’ll be ten dollars,” Tehillah volleys back.

Miriam claps. “Hey, you’re quick.”

“I’ve done this before,” Tehillah says, but her response is lost in the noise as Miriam takes her seat and joins in the conversation swelling around her.

“Let’s move on,” Leah says loudly, and the voices subside.

TzviÕs at Maariv when she gets back, and Tehillah’s strangely disappointed; it would be nice to have company now, even if he wouldn’t understand what went wrong tonight. Looking back, it seems almost silly, her expectations that this class would give her what she’s been missing since she moved out here; the stimulation and the energy she gets from using her talents, the rush of acting — real acting.

But she signed up for this life, didn’t she? Her coworkers… they’re the real thing. Drama class, ha. It’s a chance to socialize, spend time with friends, have some fun. It’s not about acting.

The apartment is quiet and feels empty. She plops down on the couch, pulls her legs up beside her, and hugs her knees. Then she notices the small pink note on the dining room table.

When she’d furnished her apartment, Mrs. Taub had given her a list several pages long, intricately detailed. Everything she needed to set up a home. She’d followed it religiously. The basics: pots and pans and garbage cans and laundry baskets, down to the little touches — a Shabbos tablecloth for the kitchen table (table was an overstatement — it was a slab that could seat two people, if you tried very hard), and a stack of little Post-it notes. For taking down messages, the list said, very seriously, as if it hadn’t been updated in 20 years, when people called landlines and left messages with whoever picked up the phone.

She’d bought them, and used the papers to scribble shopping lists or reminders. Now she picks up the little note Tzvi has left on the table, and her lips curve upward despite herself: a real, live phone message.

Please call your parents about their trip.

Tehillah feels a pit inside as she thinks about the visit. Bad enough that every conversation with her parents is strained and awkward, tiptoeing around the gaping distance between her world and theirs. Money? They’d paid for their share of the wedding, given her a generous amount to use toward purchasing an apartment, and that had been that. She’s grateful for that — of course she is — but there’s no monthly help, no way to figure out the rest of the down payment, or a mortgage, or the millions of other expenses, so in the meantime, she’s in a rental and struggling to pay her way.

She can’t tell her parents that, though. They don’t understand it. Why won’t you go to college, why won’t your husband get a job, do you two plan to live off your parents’ money forever? What about your children?

They don’t understand, but they’re still her parents, and they’re coming. To visit her. And they’ll see… they’ll see her apartment. They’ll see her, their super-talented daughter… sitting in a stuffy office, caring for a rundown apartment.

What will they think?

She’s almost at the office, but on impulse she turns, lets her feet lead her down the main road, toward the beach. She needs to think. The waves leap up the sand, darting forward, daring further, and then being sucked back into the swirling froth of the ocean.

It’s winter but the sky is postcard-blue, the air crisp, and Tehillah takes one deep breath after another.

Calm down. It’s going to be okay.

So her parents are coming. They love her, they’ll go along with her choices, even if they’ll never fully understand. And if her entire apartment is smaller than the guest suite back home… so what?

She sinks down onto a bench, overlooking the tetrapods, and watches the ocean creep nearer as the tide comes in. Mrs. Taub; she should call Mrs. Taub. She’ll have good advice, tips for how to navigate this. And it’s only nine o’clock; Mrs. Taub won’t be teaching yet.

There’s noise in the background when Mrs. Taub answers the phone, voices punctuated with laughter.

“Tehillah? How’s everything? One second — Gila, I think the props were moved into the side room last night, ask the office for a key.” A pause. “No, don’t worry, it’s going to be fine. Meira, Chayala, I’ll be there in two minutes. Start the practice. Tehillah? Are you there?”

Props. Practice.  Oh. It’s production season, and the girls have off class to prepare.

This time last year… she’d been in the thick of it. Not as production head — that was a couple of years back — but even as a madrichah, she’d been involved in every last detail: helping with dance moves, coaching drama, even spending one memorable night repainting an entire backdrop after the first one got ruined by a leak in the ceiling….

“Tehillah?” Mrs. Taub sounds clearer now; she must have moved into the hallway. “Oh, wow, this is such perfect timing. We could so use an extra pair of hands to help pull this production together… I was just telling Mrs. Firer that we need to hire someone. I don’t know why I never thought of this before. You’re perfect!”

Production? The energy, the movement, the thrill… but… working in a seminary, costumes and sound systems and music and spotlights? Isn’t she supposed to be… past that, now?

“I… I have a job,” Tehillah says, finally, even though her heart stings in protest.

“Right, the billing office,” Mrs. Taub says. “But Tehillah, weren’t you telling me you don’t enjoy it? I’m thinking, we could hire you for the next couple weeks, no problem, and then the other seminary I work in has their production in two months, I’m pretty sure you could get a job there, too… And I have connections with other schools, this could be a steady thing!”

It hurts. It hurts, so much, to dream.

She wants so badly to say yes.

She thinks of Tzvi, of the girls at work, of the life that she’s chosen.

Tehillah’s throat closes. The words recede, leaving a gaping, aching hole.

“I… don’t think it will work,” she manages.

Below, the waves crash closer, swallowing the sand.

TzviÕs eyes are wide. “So, they’re here for just three days? What for?”

Tehillah stabs at her chicken cutlet with a knife and fork, cutting it into tiny, agitated pieces. “They bought an apartment here, I think. My father always wanted to own property in Israel. They did the tree thing ages ago.”

“Tree thing?”  Tzvi blinks.

“You know.” Tehillah’s lips curve, despite herself. “Planting trees, owning a tree in the Land of Israel, support the farmers kind of thing. He’s into that. They’re big Israel supporters, my parents.”

“I hear.”

“The thing is, they want us to come to them, where they are,” Tehillah says. She pushes rice around her plate, mixing it into the chicken. Spending two hours cooking a simple supper was enough to make her lose her appetite. “They’re in some fancy hotel in Eilat and they… they offered to pay for us to come spend a night with them there. It could be fun. We could see the coral reefs… the aquarium… you know.” Her voice picks up speed. Spending a couple days in Eilat would be fun. She and Tzvi could never do a luxury vacation on their own.

Her husband, though, is frowning. “Eilat? I don’t think… it’s not really the place for us. I don’t… it’s nice of your parents, but I wouldn’t be comfortable there, you know?”

Tehillah looks down. He’s expecting her to agree with him, and she should, she knows it’s not the place for her husband, but… maybe it is for her?

“What’s wrong, Tehillah? You want to go?” Tzvi looks anxious. He’s so good, he just wants to please her. It’s not his fault that he can’t.

“It’s okay,” she says. “I’ll just… tell my parents to come here, instead. They should like Ashdod. We have beaches, too.”

Tzvi looks relieved. “Really? That would be so much better.”

“Sure,” she says, trying not to look around the spartan apartment as she dials her mother’s number.

They arrive the next afternoon, her mother smiling too widely, her father nodding courteously at Tzvi and clutching his attaché case like a child holding his support blankie.

“Your apartment is… lovely,” Mom murmurs, eyes roving from the sparsely furnished dining room to the kitchen that hasn’t been redone in at least 30 years. Lovely, sure.

Tehillah tries to keep her voice natural. “Yes. We… like it.”

Mom’s eyes travel from the dishes draining by the sink to the mop placed carefully in one corner. “You don’t have a cleaning lady, you said?”

No. She’d make more per hour than I do.

Tehillah shrugs. “I do it myself. I… like it.” Yeah, right. But surely, she will, someday? When — if — she grows into her role, her rightful place taking care of home and family and a job so her husband can sit and learn. Isn’t that what life is about?

They sit down to eat. It’s taken her the better part of the afternoon to prepare supper (salmon again, but with roast potatoes and two salads).

“You made this?” Dad finally speaks up.

“Of course. Tehillah’s a great cook,” Tzvi says proudly.

Her parents look impressed. Something like sadness flits through Mom’s eyes. Is Tehillah imagining things?

“It’s very tasty,” Mom says.

“Our daughter, the gourmet chef,” Dad adds, winking broadly. “So, we can add culinary skills to your list of talents…”

“I’m not that good… not yet, anyway.”

No one seems to hear. Dad has that faraway look in his eyes.

“Yeah, that’s what you said about guitar, before your first recital. And then your teacher told us you were the best in the orchestra.”

“And all those plays in school, and the drama society,” Mom adds. “Do you have any of that around here?”

“Not — not really,” Tehillah stammers. She thinks of the disastrous improv class.

“And where are your paintings? I thought we’d see something hanging up here. The Kotel, at least.”

Tzvi opens his mouth, looking confused, then closes it again.

“Actually,” Dad says, reaching into his briefcase and removing a binder, “we found this. Some projects you did in high school.”

The binder is hot pink and decorated with sparkly stickers, spelling out her name: TEHILLAH, surrounded by butterflies. “Oh, my goodness. That’s… pretty old. I used it in… ninth grade? Tenth?” She reaches for the file. “It’s my scripts, no? And some drawings…”

“Lots and lots of creativity,” Mom says fondly, pouring herself a drink of water with a dubious look at the plastic jug. “This is bottled water, I assume?”

“Oh — wait—” Tehillah is flustered, half-standing, hand still clutching the pink binder. “I think we have — in the other room…”

“I got it,” Tzvi says, rising swiftly and returning moments later with a bottle of water. “We drink from the faucet, but if you’re not used to it…”

“I’d rather the bottled. Thank you.”

Tehillah places the pink binder on the sofa. Part of her wants nothing more than to lose herself in its pages, revisit the magical world she’s been missing: a world of sparkling creativity, endless potential. Touch the dreams again. Another part warns her that if she starts, she might never stop, and hasn’t she chosen to exchange those dreams for others?

But right now, her parents are here, in her apartment, eating her food, and they’ll be ready for the next course soon.

Dreams, unlike dessert, can wait.

After they leave, thanking her again for the “wonderful cuisine,” and planning where to meet for lunch the next day, Tehillah flops down on the couch and lifts the binder like it’s a newborn baby.

“You want to see this?” she asks Tzvi. “Really old stuff. Things I wrote, like plays, poems, maybe some sketches… I had a bunch of these binders, back in high school.”

“Right, you told me you did a lot of this creative stuff. It’s amazing.” He perches on a chair. It’s not his thing, but he’s taken the evening off in honor of her parents’ visit, and suddenly they have this yawning, open space together. Maybe if she shows him… maybe, he’ll understand?

The first page is the opening scene of a play she’d written. Or a movie? She squints at the handwritten words. “The Devil’s Granddaughter.” She has a distant memory of a storyline heavily influenced by a TV series and flips a few pages, feeling vaguely embarrassed.

There are drawings, self-portraits and sketches of herself with her friends. Party dresses and outlandish hairstyles and heavy makeup. Oh, gosh, these drawings make her cringe. She’s moved on. But if she wants to be in her new life, why is she finding it so hard?

There are poems, too, mostly dark and depressing, full of teenage angst. She finds one or two nice ones, and a few that are pretty funny. She slides these out, happy there’s something she can share with her husband, then snaps the binder shut. The glittery lettering on the cover has lost its luster, just a sprinkle of stardust.

“Wow,” Tzvi says, putting one of the poems down. “I knew you were talented, but I didn’t realize what your parents meant. Do you… miss all this?”

Did she miss it.

“I—” Tehillah swallows, tries again. “I mean, I miss it in a way, but… it’s old. I’ve changed. Things are… different now.” She runs a hand over the spine of the binder, trying to sort the emotions flash-flooding her system. Nostalgia. Regret. Shame. Longing. Disgust. And… despite it all, the desire for more. To use her talents again, bring her creativity to life.

I’ve changed.

It’s true. She has changed, her values have shifted. She chose this lifestyle and now she has to live with it. It’s the right thing. And she isn’t the person she used to be, even though there are things she misses so much it hurts.

“You’re so talented. There’s so much you could do with this,” Tzvi says, cutting into her thoughts as he lays one page of poetry down on the table and picks up another. “Why don’t you do something with it? Get a creative job, maybe? You’d enjoy it much more.”

“I was offered one, actually,” Tehillah says, before she can think. “But I thought….” She trails off. What, exactly, had she thought? That she had to turn it down because none of the other kollel wives were doing it?

“You were?” Tzvi’s eyes open wide, and suddenly she realizes: he’s happy with the idea, he wants her to be fulfilled. She doesn’t need to stifle every bit of her creativity and talent and quirkiness. Her husband doesn’t want her to do that. No one does. She’s been trapped in a prison of her own making.

She may be in a new place, a new role, a whole new life, but she can find the glitter here, too. If only she chooses to let it in.

Her fingers reach for the phone to find Mrs. Taub’s number. Images of costumes, props, backdrops, lights, camera, creativity, flash through her mind, and her heart lifts like it hasn’t lifted in a long, long time.

She feels like she’s emerged from a tunnel, blinking in the light of a sudden realization that no one ever told her that choosing to live higher meant living in the dark.

She begins to dial the familiar number, then stops. She’ll call — but not just now. There’s something more important. Something she should have done a long, long time ago.

“Tzvi,” she asks, and her voice is light as sunshine dancing on the waves. “Want to go on a walk by the sea together?”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 818)

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