| Fiction |

The Path Not Taken

A choose-your-own-adventure tale

Illustrated by Dov-Ber Cohen

1. As you disembark from El Al flight 07A42, non-stop from Tel Aviv, you are no closer to a decision than to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which is, in fact, 960 miles away.

On the one hand, your stint in the rarefied atmosphere of Bais Yaakov L’Meidelach has impressed upon you the importance of your role as an akeres habayis, which inclines you to immediately set about the pursuit of building your very own bayis ne’eman.

On the other hand, the residual taint of your American upbringing whispers deep in your heart that marriage should wait at least until you have developed 14 gigabytes worth of photos and had a chance to finish your stash of gummy worms and Doritos or else you might have to share.

Already 17 by Pesach of your seminary year, you are conscious of your eligibility clock rapidly ticking towards its dismal end, and the thought fills you with as much foreboding as you can muster without knowing what the word means.

On yet a third hand, not having slept for about a year, you are hoping for a couple of weeks off before intrepidly encountering the cream of Brisk’s crop that populates your mother’s multi-page, color-coded List.

If you opt to begin shidduchim immediately, turn to (2)

If you choose to wait until you’ve at least had the chance to shower and blow dry your hair, turn to (3)

 

2. Since you don’t plan to be single for more than the few months it will take to purchase your trousseau, it’s of paramount importance that you make every moment count. Between shoe-shopping, hair appointments, and meeting shadchanim, you decide to further your career so that you can support your husband’s learning, and also to upgrade your marketability to said hypothetical husband.

Together with your mother, sister, four favorite teachers from seminary, and 14 best friends from high school, you develop a list of criteria and narrow down your options. Your chosen occupation needs to be lucrative, not require your parents to mortgage their first-born child to pay for the training, have flexible hours, and have the potential to continually demand raises over time. A unicorn hitching post outside the office would be a nice plus, but not a deal-breaker, because you’re flexible that way.

If you choose to become a pirate, turn to (4)

If you choose to become a cleaning lady, turn to (5)

 

3. All the good boys are taken. Haven’t you read the Nasi ads?

THE END

4.

You walk down the steps, loose-leaf in hand, your mind abuzz with details of the program you’ve just signed up for. Even with all of your credits from seminary, it’ll still take you at least three months to get your master’s degree. A frown momentarily creases your brow. No one told you that degree programs would be this hard! Still, you persevere, because if there’s one thing you’ve learned at Bais Yaakov L’Meidelach, it’s the importance of your husband’s learning.

After muddling through your coursework in Introductory Navigation and Advanced Plundering, you’re thrilled to land a coveted berth on the all-female Enterprise, and are soon paying down your student debt.

Rather like the brown recluse spider that your brother Bentzi once slipped down your collar on a family Chol Hamoed outing, it comes as an unpleasant surprise the first time a bochur questions the suitability of your chosen career. Rather unlike that episode, you respond in an appropriately lady-like way when the young man asks, “Doesn’t it take you away from home a lot?”

Clearly, some honest soul-searching is in order, and you make a kabbalah to review Mrs. Schwartzman’s notes on A Jewish Mother’s Role. It’s a choice between two important ideals: clearly one of those adult things they were warning you about.

Is your love of Torah fueling your desire to pillage and loot, or is it your very American thirst for baubles and trinkets?

If you persevere in your chosen career, turn to (6)

If you choose to quit and become a stay-at-home mom, turn to (7)

 

The demand for your services is extraordinary. You expand into a national empire of cleaning help, regularly raising your rates, which enables you to support your husband in kollel for 20 years.

Although money is piling up faster than resumes in a boy’s mother’s inbox, house-cleaning can sometimes be rather stultifying for someone of your independent and free-spirited nature.

As you dust a night table one spring morning, lost in thought about ways to break free of the mundane rote that has become your daily bread, your eyes alight on the mattress tag of Mendy Kuperwasser’s Thomas the Tank toddler bed.

“Under penalty of law,” declare the bold black letters, “this tag not to be removed except by the consumer.”

You continue with your routine chores as you have done thousands of times, but something has changed. The forbidden lure of the mattress tag has gripped your thoughts with a tenacity unrivaled even by your toddler as you try, in vain, to leave him with a babysitter so that you can attend PTA.

What secrets lie beneath Thomas’s innocent veneer? Who will ever know if you indulge in this solitary, private act of defiance against the mighty powers of the military-industrial complex?

If you decide to live life on the edge and remove the tag, turn to (8)

If you decide that safety, job security and earning a law-abiding living trump adventure, intrigue, and the exhilaration of choosing your own truth, turn to (9)

 

Firm in your conviction that your pursuit of wealth is rooted in, and wholly compatible with, Torah ideals, it isn’t long before you’re introduced to a bochur whose unmatched hasmadah and yiras Shamayim make the long weeks at sea worthwhile.

It seems like only a sentence or two later that the rosy glow of shanah rishonah is but a distant haze behind you, easily mistaken for the bug that splattered against the rearview mirror, and you know the time is approaching to choose a community to drop anchor.

You gaze at baby Shmuli snoring peacefully in his Carter’s stretchie and wonder, for the third time while perusing this week’s Mishpacha, whether the luxury vacations and high-end baby stores are patronized by aliens from an alternate reality, or whether you’re the sole middle class citizen in the Tristate area.

Like a Graco in a sea of Bugaboos, you feel… plebeian. Utilitarian. You accost your husband as he walks in the door. “Chaim,” you say, “I’ve never served you a charcuterie board.”

Chaim freezes with his hand on the doorknob. He is poised to flee.

“And when I serve noodles, I just call them noodles, not a noodle bowl, even if they happen to be in one. I just read an article on vintage ingredients and it turns out I use most of them at least once a week. What does this mean for our marriage?”

“Um, that you make food that I can recognize?” he offers tentatively.

“I’m not trendy enough to live in the city,” you tell him. “I’m not wealthy enough to keep up with the Kranzelbuchs. We need to move to Sheboygan, Wisconsin.”

“Sheboygan, Wisconsin,” he repeats carefully.

“Yes,” you say firmly. “It’s been a dream of mine since seminary.”

If you move out of town, your life will be filled with perpetual warm fuzzies from enthusiastic neighbors bearing freshly baked muffins, all your children will be nice, and you will be able to smile smugly with barely disguised condescension at the foibles of New Yorkers.

If you stay in town, you will be forever branded a cold, self-absorbed snob who has prioritized filthy lucre over warm relationships and wholesome children.

If the lure of fine dining and easy access to prepackaged saltwater for your Pesach Seder outweigh the value you place on relationships, turn to (13)

If you chose to be courageously individualistic and choose a slower pace of life with time to smell the apple pie cooling on the counter and to smile at random passersby, who will probably get nervous and shy away if they’re from New York, turn to (14)

 

You gaze beatifically at your sleeping child and know, in your heart of hearts, that nothing can compare to the joy and security of a Jewish mother being there for her children through thick and thin, except, possibly, the joy and security of being able to pay your mortgage.

True, your firstborn is only two weeks old, but you’re flooded with the confidence that you’ve made the only possible choice for a mother who loves her children, and that all those working mothers who claim otherwise are clearly deluding themselves.

Still, as more children join your happy and rambunctious crew, which somehow makes it sound like they pop out of an Amazon Prime box all toilet-trained and freshly shampooed and pajama’ed, instead of the infinitely more complex and time-consuming truth, a vague worry gnaws at your heart.

Somewhere in the dimly lit recesses of your mind, where you file things like where you put your car keys, you remember that after the eight-month unit on chashivus haTorah, Mrs. Schwartzman mentioned something about chinuch. You vaguely recall a couple of blank pages in your notes, festooned only with rather attractive doodles of bridal gowns and diamond rings.

Whatever efforts you invest in pruning and watering these tender shoots, you know they will ultimately yield dividends of diamonds. You are a little hazy on the details of how this works, but assume that some mystifying alchemical process modifies the carbon from the shoots into stone over the course of thousands of years or adolescence, whichever is shorter.

When you wake up one Yom Kippur morning to find the six-year-old twins working as a team to empty your pantry and shampoo the baby with the resulting creative sauces, you carefully consider your options.

Of the 20 or so unread parenting books that line your shelves, it’s time to choose one to guide you.

If you choose to quash all vestiges of independence and creative spark by setting firm but loving limits for your children, turn to (12)

If you choose to spoil your children’s characters and turn them into self-indulgent special snowflakes by showering them with relentless positivity, turn to (12)

If you fly by the seat of your pants and try to do the best you can in each situation, much like your mother did, turn to (12)

 

With bated breath, you reach for the crinkly tag and give a good hard yank. Embarrassingly, in front of an audience of thousands of Family First readers, it holds fast, and you need to scrabble at it awkwardly for a good few minutes until you manage to wrench it free.

Like a stomach that has tasted ceviche before realizing that it meant “raw fish,” your stomach gives an unpleasant lurch as you note with horror that a sizable swatch of mattress has come loose with the tag. Your stomach continues with its acrobatics (totally tzniyusdig and appropriate, since it has trained in a frum girls’ talent program) as you watch a young man in a crumpled black suit climb out from the cavity in the mattress.

“It was cramped in there!” he exclaims as he brushes himself off. “Thanks!”

You stare at him, speechless, and he seems to sense your bewilderment.

“Chananya Yom Tov Lipa Katz,” he introduces himself. “I’m the second-best bochur in Lakewood. They ran out of space in the freezer, so I got put in a furniture warehouse that had extra space, and somehow I ended up here.” He gestures vaguely at the Thomas linen, now rather rumpled.

“You should go out with my daughter,” you blurt with all the subtlety of a rampaging water buffalo.

“Sure!” he says agreeably. “I don’t get many suggestions. Tell me about her.”

Your mind races furiously. You have a daughter in shidduchim… might this be the big break you were waiting for?

If you choose to be scrupulously honest and give him a realistic picture of your daughter’s qualities, turn to (10)

If you allow yourself shidduch-license to praise her unstintingly, turn to (11)

 

Slowly and deliberately, you turn your back on the tantalizing tag. You will never know what mysteries the tag was hiding beneath its inky-hued warning. You will continue plodding on the safe path until you are old, gray, and too arthritic to scrub floors, wondering, always, about the path not taken and what it may have meant for you.*

THE END

 

Honesty is the best policy, you tell yourself firmly, ignoring all the life experience that has shown you otherwise. You will land this shidduch honestly or not at all, though probably the latter.

“Well, she’s very nice. You know how the top girls are outgoing but not too loud? Well, Penina’s a tiny bit too loud. In a lovable kind of way,” you hasten to add. “And we kind of always hoped she’d be not too tall, but not short either, but she ended up 5’7”, Rachmana litzlan. Her friends like to say she’s amazing, but between you and me — I feel like we should be honest here — she’s maybe a solid notch above mediocre.” You blush, sure you’ve said too much.

But the young man’s face is shining like Penina’s hair on the third day of Yom Tov. “I’m tired of being overlooked and stuffed into mattresses because I’m average,” he confides. “I need a girl who appreciates normal — not ‘really serious, but sooo normal,’ normal-normal. Do you have a shadchan who can redt it?”

***

When Mrs. Spiegelbraun calls to officially set up Penina’s date with Chanaya Yom Tov Lipa Katz, the excitement in your home is somewhat akin to the feeling of the Coke inside the bottle that the bochur has been nervously fiddling with just prior to unscrewing the cap inches away from his unsuspecting date — that is to say, tense and poised to explode.

As your daughter applies her drugstore-product makeup, you thoughtfully consider your pre-date tablescape. Upon your vigorous insistence, it has been cleared of its artful homework and encrusted supper remains, and all that is left is to select the appropriate refreshments for a first date.

It’s important to make the boy feel at home, so you’re inclined to go with your usual: stale nuts that haven’t been replaced since Penina began shidduchim, chocolate rugelach that ditto, with the aroma of burnt supper permeating. At the same time, you’re more excited than you’ve ever been about a prospective shidduch, so maybe you should go all out and try some more artful presentation.

If you opt for a simple spread, turn to (15)

If you go all-out with a lavish reception, turn to (16)

 

Everyone subtracts 20 percent from the hyperbole they hear in shidduchim, you rationalize, so it’s not actually dishonest.

“Penina is amazing,” you begin with elegant understatement. “Her brothers were reading by age two, but it’s not becoming for a girl to be a prodigy, so she channeled her energies into homemaking. She was making Shabbos by age four and running Sunday clubs for the neighborhood children the year she turned five. Because of that, she leveraged compound interest to put away a nest-egg in the seven digits, but of course we intend to support her.”

Chananya Yom Tov Lipa listens politely, but you see that his heart is not really in it.

“Thank you,” he says, “She sounds wonderful. In fact, I’m overwhelmed. I’m just me — average. I need someone… regular. But thank you for thinking of me.” He carefully flicks a piece of dust off his non-Borsalino hat, gives a little wave, and heads down the walk.

You watch from the window as he disappears from sight, and you wonder: Should you have mentioned her 16 seminary acceptances? The years she was head counselor at Bnos Narishkeit? As the years pass, and Penina turns first 19, then 20, you lie awake at night wondering which piece of information would have piqued his interest. You will never find out.

THE END

 

“Your parents did the best they could with the tools they had,” the compassionate therapist tells your child. “It’s nobody’s fault they couldn’t provide you with what you needed.”

Although your relationship with your children is still reasonably strong, you spend the rest of your life regretting that you didn’t try a different approach to parenting. Surely, that would have made all the difference.

THE END

 

You sigh as you affix the iron-on Hermes decal to your newly purchased Target cross-body bag.

The dramatic black marbleized paint on your entranceway statement wall is hidden behind your children’s coats, several seforim shelves, and your breakfront, since your foyer is, in fact, your living room-dining room combo.

Remarkably like sardines, but sans the fishy odor, your family endures, but doesn’t thrive, in their anonymous in-town sameness. But as you contemplate the primitive customs of the uncivilized hinterlands beyond the Hudson, you know you would not want it any other way.

THE END

 

Exchanging your 200-square-foot condo for a 4,000-foot ranch on two acres in Sheboygan seemed like a good idea at the time, and you use the remaining cash from the transaction to set up trust funds for each of your children.

You’re all set to create unbreakable bonds of warm community feeling with the neighbors, but first you have to find them. When you finally stumble across a neighbor after several hours of hiking, you’re thrilled to find he is an authentic out-of-towner, down to the straw hat and work boots.

Lenny Weisberg leans on his pitchfork and looks you up and down. Something — perhaps your stylish but impractical stilettos, or the sheitel you donned for the hike? — seems to give away the fact that you’re not from around here. You exchange pleasantries about the people you know in common (none), the weather (exactly average for the season), and how nice it is to get to know new neighbors (very).

Mrs. Weisberg soon joins you, and it takes only moments before her eyes begin to slide out of focus, she gazes into the distance, and you recognize the unmistakable “I have a shidduch idea” look that drifts across her face.

“Lenny’s cousin is visiting from Monsey,” she tells you, confirming your hunch. “He’s also very sno — I mean, sophisticated. I heard you have a daughter of marriageable age.”

You agree to the date — even a city slicker like you knows good boys don’t grow on trees. Still, you’re doubtful; the Weisbergs are clearly country bumpkins. Can this Chananya Yom Tov Lipa Katz really be in the same league as your beautiful and fashionable Penina?

But there is something undeniably endearing about the Weisbergs’ innocent obliviousness to the lingo and standards that governed life back on the East Coast. (“It’s called ahavas Yisrael,” your husband explains patiently when he overhears your boys giggling that the neighbors don’t know what a “Harry” is. “It grows in the cornfields.”) You are eager to make the right impression on the mystery nephew.

Should you entertain this shidduch on the standard you’ve been accustomed to? Or should you upgrade your usual presentation to make clear from the outset that you are not a Sheboyganite at heart?

If you opt for a simple spread, turn to (15)

If you go all-out with a lavish reception, turn to (16)

 

You decide not to get your hopes up, and to treat this shidduch no differently than any other. The nuts and rugelach that have been wrapped in the back of the freezer since the last date go into their usual dishes, but you do grace the table with a fresh bottle of seltzer.

Young Katz arrives exactly ten minutes late, clears his throat, fidgets, and forgets what sugya he’s learning as well as any other bochur who’s come through your home.

You’re about to signal to step in when it happens — he reaches for a rugelah.

“Don’t!” shriek all your children who have been peering through the upstairs banister.

“You’ll lose a tooth,” agrees your husband.

“But it’s not Penina’s fault! I baked them!” cries Shoshana dramatically, running into the dining room to sacrifice her pride on the altar of sisterly love.

“Hey, I did get a Danish in school today,” suggests Yitzi.

He rummages in his backpack for the half-eaten pastry, then brushes off some pencil sharpenings and offers it to the stranger. Chananya Yom Tov Lipa looks surprised, then confused, and finally amused.

“I think it’s time to go,” you say firmly, ushering the young couple out the door.

“You have a nice family,” says the second-best bochur in Lakewood before stepping out the door. “Nice is important.”

And they step out into the evening and a future redolent with the scent of spring.

THE END

 

First impressions are everything, you tell yourself as you dial Party Perfection’s emergency hotline. Fortunately, they have a party planner on call in your area, and barely a few minutes pass before Daniella is taking measurements for new window treatments that will better highlight the donut wall you plan to rent.

By the time Chananya Yom Tov Lipa Katz trips over your son’s bike at 8 p.m. the next night, your dining room is barely recognizable. You do your best to arrange your features in a modestly nonchalant expression as your husband ushers the bochur in.

A rush of triumph washes over you as you see the young man’s face light up, and he answers your husband’s questions with dignified poise.

Just before stepping out the door, Chananya Yom Tov Lipa clears his throat. “I just want to say… I’m the second-best bochur in Lakewood. People tend to look right over my shoulder, but you noticed me. You made me count. Thank you.”  And they step out into the evening and a future redolent with the scent of spring.

THE END

 

(Originally Featured in Family First, Issue 683)

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