I was single and in Miami; the last person I wanted to see was my grandfather. Yet I was pestered by my mother to do just that: “You’re in Miami, did you call Zayde? He’s at the Saxony.”
“Zayde really wants to see you, you know,” my mother went on, “he is waiting for your call.”
Days went by. I avoided calling him even as I received additional messages from my sisters: “Ma wants you to call Zayde!”
Finally, on the fourth day, I went to his hotel.
No sooner did our eyes meet than he lashed out in a way that I had never experienced before: “I was waiting the whole week for your call! You know when you will remember you have a grandfather? When he is six feet under—then you will remember him.” The carotid artery on the side of his head pulsed and the capillaries by his nose were engorged. I had hurt him.
Shame on me! My grandfather was already on the far side of 90 at the time and I had in fact avoided him. Nor was it the first time I had betrayed my elders to save myself from their well-meaning narcissisms and the obliterating submission they seemed to demand without mercy or remorse.
A minute or two passed this way and he smoothed down the sides of his jacket and pants as though he were unruffling his own feathers. He was a man who calmed down quickly.
“Du muz zein hungerik,” he said, you must be hungry.
That’s pretty much the way it was in my family: betrayal, followed by lunch. I was to meet him in the dining room in half an hour. “My treat,” he said.
Here at the Saxony, he had a table all to himself; mild-mannered Cuban waiters with handsome haircuts doted on him. They may have fancied him some kind of mogul or religious guru—I could never be sure which. He had a touch of grandeur as befitting the son of a great Hasidic rebbe with a royal court. They brought him dairy food Isaac Bashevis Singer-style: blintzes with sour cream, or noodles with cheese on the side, invariably chased by a danish with a coffee and a Sweet n’ Low.
Following the first forkful of cheese blintz, came the dreaded, but not entirely unexpected question: Farvos zenen nish khasuna gehot? Why aren’t you married? Are there no attractive women, he asked, lightly gesturing around the dining room.
I fidgeted while he buttressed his point with citations from the Talmudic sages: A man who lives without a wife, lives without joy, without blessing, without goodness. Matza isha matza tov, he further quoted, this time from the Book of Proverbs: He who finds a wife, finds good.
I am not sure who I had to produce a wife for, but Zayde was unabashed. I had to produce a woman for the mishpacha, and for him, too…and for all of Israel. And what’s more, I had slacked off on the job. He then pointed to his head and eyes, “Am I getting any younger?! Cherchez la femme. No excuses.”
I sat in silence, slowly and methodically dismembering the Spanish omelet I had ordered.
We both cleaned our plates, but he was just getting started. After a last sip of coffee he said, “Lomir geyn shpazirn baym yam,” let’s go for a walk on the boardwalk.
I was 27 years old at the time. I had been out with many women, but no one seemed to click with me. Would it be as simple for me as it was for him! Zayde had been engaged at the age of 9! They took him out into the street in his shtetl. There were two girls, sisters, playing jump rope. One was Shifra, his senior by two years and the other was Sora, slightly younger than he was. Which one do you want, they asked him. “Shifra!” he said. And so it was, they married in Lublin 10 years later when he was 19 and she was 21.
The simple task of my finding a woman to marry, a process about which Zayde was utterly blithe (and one that he felt was being personally, malevolently denied him), was a painful mystery to me. It even had a hallucinatory quality. It felt as though any woman in whom I might take an interest would evaporate mirage-like into the atmosphere.
As we strolled on the boardwalk, he took my arm in his. He was a small man, but he took massive, rapid strides in the Florida sun, holding on to his rabbinical hat in the surprisingly strong ocean breeze.
His mood began to turn jolly, even jubilant. He would stop strangers and acquaintances alike and say, Here is my grandson! He has come to visit me! In between these introductions, he continued his riff: “I understand one cannot marry a meesekeyt, an ugly woman—we all have a nature, der eybershter, God gave us a nature, something beyond our control. If you need to have a shonheit, a looker, then get one, but you must be married!”
“You know,” he said, turning to me as if in confidence, “I, too, would get married today.” (His wife, my grandmother, had died 20 years earlier.) “But what can I do? I want, but the body doesn’t want. But you? You are young. ‘Smach bachur byaldusecha.’ I am leaving the fair, you are just coming. Why should it be so hard for you?”
My grandfather was off-key, almost deliberately so, in his workman-like understanding of marriage and romance, yet his “why aren’t you married” question reverberated in me. Why was it so hard for me, and what if anything could be done about it?
Because the whole thing seemed out of reach, and because neither my mother nor my grandfather were ever going to let up, and because, well, everybody needs a little help in this area, upon my return from Florida I decided to visit the only wonder-worker I knew: a distant relative of my grandfather’s, a Hasidic rebbe.
The rebbe lived in Brooklyn, of course. Even though it was Wednesday, the house smelled of Sabbath fish and mikveh water. He was a burly man, the rebbe, he had been born here in America but he, too, spoke Yiddish, the language of the fathers. He was a moody man, testy and angry one minute, gentle, calm, and beatific the next. How’s your grandfather? he was sure to ask. Relatives both dead and alive remained bright to him like moons ringed around a planet. They were all there, the constellation: Bubbe Shifra, Tante Sure’le, Uncle Yoel, even those who died back home, even those who perished in the camps.
“What did you come for, Yisrael?” he asked.
“I came for a bracha, a blessing,” I told him. “I’m not yet married.”
“I’m 28 almost.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Ah, nothing works out for me.”
I said this with the heaviness of self-pity. It is the way I truly felt at times. No sooner would I fix my eyes on a woman than I would feel her slip away from me. However, what I didn’t tell him was the other side of the story. Long ago I had surrendered to the mysterious and seemingly random powers of love and romance: I decided to become my own matchmaker. I would simply ask every woman I met, wherever I met them, Jew, gentile, young, old, tall, short, if they were interested in marriage and, specifically, if they would marry me. The reactions I got were hilarious and brought me into all kinds of predicaments, lovely and dreadful. And of course it was dangerous, too. I didn’t even try to discern if there would be any suitability or rapport. I lampooned a serious subject, and relegated a most sacred decision to the realm of chance, a crap shoot.
Most importantly, it hadn’t worked.
Now the rebbe leaned forward. “Do you like women?” he asked, “Do you like talking to women?”
“Yes,” I answered. “Yes, I do.”
“So keep talking to women, you will definitely get married soon. The more you talk to them, the quicker you will get married. There are no blessings, no tricks. If you talk to women, you will get married.”
The rebbe was a tactful, formal man. He was not the person with whom one could confide the deepest personal secrets. The conflicts with my grandfather and family were much deeper than I wanted to know. I may have looked in some respects like a yeshiva bokher, but I was of a slightly darker hue. Yes, I wanted marriage, but I also wanted something far more complicated than marriage, something thick, acrid—in the genre of adventure or experience, something that I could feel that would be deeply my own, good, bad, dark, virtuous, whatever. My haphazardness in looking for a wife made sense in that light: It was a rebellion against the strictures of family pressure to continue the blood line of the Jewish people. No, I wasn’t completely willing to give myself over to the order of the tribe. I was a matchmaker, but I was also a mess-maker.
I left the rebbe’s house and breathed in the damp summer air of the cloistered Brooklyn street, with its mixture of tragic tenements and aspirational private homes. The rebbe’s plainspoken-ness had its effect. He wasn’t as glib as my grandfather had been, but as the rebbe said, one could simply speak to women and from this, one finds what one seeks. A natural thing—difficult, but also at the same time simple.
Yet, there was no fast train to wherever I was going. I had to look inside myself. I was no angel; I was a saboteur. I liked to mingle with messes even as I wanted to uphold tradition. Now I had come to consult with the rebbe and I had taken strength from his wisdom: Talk to women.
Shortly after that day, one particularly attractive woman I met at a Kiddush said to me, “You have a lot to you. A lot of life and talent, but you are a project right now. Not a person—not a person I can take seriously, anyway.” Even though I had been told this by numerous women before, meeting with the rebbe had made me ready to hear it.
In our few minutes of banter and flirtation she cut through. I had been engaged in a vast score-settling project between the generations, a delusive enterprise that interposed between me and marriage and romance—and potentially her. What she did not know was that the noisiness and the (benign) nosiness of my frum Jewish family made it hard for me to do my own personal relating and choosing. To my mind, “authentic” romantic chaos and marital “non-productivity” was far better than submitting to a trope-like marriage.
I took to heart what the appealing woman at the Kiddush said. Perhaps I had tortured myself and everyone else enough. We stayed in touch intermittently. Then about two years later, out-of-the-blue, I told her, “I realize I have passionate feelings for you.” She was stunned into silence. “We can forget I said this if you like, but by the look on your face, I think you want this conversation to continue.” She slowly nodded yes.
Not too long after that, she gave me her hand in marriage.
Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.