By Akiva Schick
Instead of sprinkling the shiny “mazel tov!” shaped confetti across the white tablecloth, Dovie dumped them out of the package, into a heap on the table, and tried spreading them out with his hands. He was seven, so this outcome wasn’t unexpected, but the Rosens were frantically preparing, and the job of confetti spreading fell to the youngest child.
The confettied table showed all the signs of a hastily organized Sunday morning vort. The mess of Shabbos was stuffed into closets and cabinets. A fresh tablecloth replaced the one stained with grape juice, soup, and crumbs. Pareve pastry dishes, and fruit platters from Mendy’s Bakery covered the table that spanned the long dining room from the front window to the kitchen door.
The bakery had engagement party platters down to a science. Chocolate eclairs and miniature cupcakes and blondies and sugar-free cookies and those terrible dark-chocolate, jelly-filled monstrosities, had been delivered early that morning and organized on the table, or else raised on tableclothed blocks, ensuring easy access to all items.
The dining room sat on the right side of the house. A long glass cabinet lined the far wall, stuffed with dishes, chalah knives, utensils, a silver menorah, Ayelet’s scrunchies, and three of Dovie’s toy cars because he didn’t want to carry them upstairs.
Rosen family photos scattered the other walls – mostly formal pictures from weddings, bat mitzvahs, and graduations, a sea of pale skin, brown hair, and hazel eyes. There was a small photo from Zahava’s bat mitzvah with Zahava and her mother. They put it up even though it was small because they knew that just outside the frame, Mr. Rosen was shouting into his phone, trying to give driving directions to his parents.
The largest photo showed the family at a restaurant in Montreal. The parents sat like bookends, keeping the kids at the table. Zahava was in the center, her arms around Meira and Dovie, who wore a puffy blue coat, too large for him at age five. Ayelet sat on the edge of her chair, and after the camera clicked, she stormed off because she couldn’t “deal with Zahava anymore.” Then Dovie ate the peanut butter in the dessert and they discovered his allergy.
Next to the family photos hung a watercolor painting of the Kotel, with its huge stone slabs and bushes of weeds sprouting from cracks in the wall. The painter did not include the Dome of the Rock.
Mr. Rosen once put up a photo of Rav Soloveitchik, but Esther took it down, saying she “didn’t want the Rav glaring at her” every time she entered the room. Mrs. Rosen was setting up drinks on the small black folding table. There was seltzer, soda, and water, but also two bottles of wine and one of scotch. The Rosens never drank scotch, but it was traditional to have a bottle of it at these parties.
Zahava would normally have helped to set up, but this was her day, and her parents insisted she relax and wait in the living room. The other kids were called in to help, with uncertain success, and Zahava listened to her sisters fighting over whether or not to cut up the watermelon that was in the fridge, in case the fruit platters ran low. “Nobody ever eats fruit at these!” shouted Ayelet. Zahava sighed and sank into the green leather couch. Her dress – white and covered in fall leaves – crumpled around her midriff. She patted down the creases but stayed in her sunken pose. She drummed her fingers on the sofa and looked around the living room, at the two couches and the wall of bookshelves. When the family hosted a Chanukah party, the twenty guests made the room feel snug. But the number of people invited to her vort… she had stopped counting, and let Max and their families handle it. There must be some space, where people could wait their turns to speak to her, other than this small gap. If everyone came, there would be no room…
She yawned and, after nearly an hour of waiting, listening to arguments, and breathing, Max showed up in a suit with the other Sussmans in tow. He smiled at Zahava. They hadn’t really spoken since the proposal on Friday morning. The family gave them some time to savor the moment, but soon poured in. Friends started calling and didn’t stop. Then Shabbos came, and more phone calls on Saturday night; for two nights she was too wired up to really sleep, and finally now it was Sunday morning.
“Hi Zahava,” said Max. “What’s new?”
“Not much. You?”
“Same,” he smiled, and came into the living room, but Zahava’s dad appeared and steered Max into the dining room, where the men would gather.
Zahava’s tiny grandmother strutted in a few minutes before the other guests, and settled onto the couch. “Ts, Zehava, it’s too warm for this,” she said, plucking Zahava’s cuffs. “If you want long sleeves, get engaged in winter.”
“I’m comfortable, Bubby,” said Zahava, leaning over to kiss her grandmother’s cheek, hoping the old woman didn’t notice the sweat on her face.
The house filled up fast as friends and family filed in, celebrating another successful ending to the great matching game they all played, this game of connect-two.
Zahava’s grandmother stayed sitting on the couch, and her mother stood. Between the two women, they seemed to know everyone in the house. Zahava was cornered at the bookshelf, trying to match each “mazel tov!” with a warm smile and a hug, while searching the crowd for friends. The swarm was relentless, and sweat pooled beneath her arms and on her forehead. She couldn’t see Max, who was in a similar position – worse, maybe; the food was in the dining room, creating a double attraction.
After making their mazel tovs, guests milled about the house, wandering through rooms, squeezing past each other in busy hallways, trying not to spill anything, and trying harder to keep up conversations.
“How can they add a bus lane to Main Street? It’s totally unnecessary.”
“Moish wants to go away for Pesach, but I feel like, with the baby–”
“Yeah, so we’re hoping to be in Israel for most of the year–”
Max and Zahava’s friends made up less than half of the guests, but they buzzed with more excitement and seemed to fill the space, floating through the crowd like bright balloons. This was the first engagement for this age group. The older guests soon began eyeing the door, waiting for an appropriate time to leave.
Novices in the delicate formal-casual balance of vort dress codes, the friends had been unsure what to wear, sending around nervous texts to crowdsource opinions. The dress styles turned out inconsistent. Some wore their usual clothes: khakis and button-downs, jean skirts and blouses, sneakers and Converses. Others held to the Shabbos standard of suits and dark dresses. Some walked in cautiously, afraid of invoking family ire if they were underdressed.
Zahava had described her parents as very formal and conservative. “They would never let me go to a co-ed sleepaway camp or wear skirts above my calves.” The description of her parents as strict enforcers was not a lie, but it exaggerated the Rosen’s concerns.
The Rosens belonged to the not-quite-yeshivish-but-not-quite-not crowd in Kew Gardens Hills, a neighborhood trying to be Modern Orthodox without looking Conservative, and trying to be Yeshivish without looking Haredi.
The optics were important, not that anyone admitted it. They just eyed necklines, skirt-lengths, kippa styles, and beards, never saying a word in public. The concern over appearances seethed beneath the surface of the vort, as at so many other Jewish functions, threatening to spill over the top but never quite doing so.
Most of Max and Zahava’s friends went to Yeshiva University, and showed up as one, their individual fashion slip-ups hidden by the safety of the group.
Avi Hollander lived in the neighborhood and walked over, hoping to time his arrival with the group’s, so he wouldn’t walk in alone – or with Nechama, if she showed up at the same time. He paced around his living room, lost track of the time, and arrived ten minutes late, wearing a blue sweater over a white shirt, navy pants, and dress shoes. His mom had said he didn’t need a tie, but the first people he saw at the vort were Ezra, Akiva, and Bear, who all had suits on, though at least Bear’s tie was loose. Avi glanced around, half-checking how underdressed he was and half-looking for Nechama, and scratched at the small band-aid on his arm. How was it still there after two weeks? He tried to comb his red hair with his hand, forgetting that his haircut made combing pointless.
“Hey!” shouted Ezra, pushing through the crowd. He was tall and broad-shouldered – not heavy, but solid.
“Hey, how late am I?” asked Avi.
“So, late and underdressed. Cool,” said Avi, forcing a smile.
“Nah, you’re fine,” said Ezra, waving his free hand. The left held a blondie.
“Where’s Max?” Avi was friends with both Max and Zahava, but he didn’t want to push his way through the crowd of women to see her. He didn’t know if Nechama had told anyone and there might be awkward questions.
Ezra pointed above the crowd at Max, who stood at the back of the dining room, talking to Rabbi Stein.
“Let’s say hello.”
Avi shook his head, “Wait for him to stop talking to Rabbi Stein.”
“We’ll be waiting for years,” said Ezra. He and Avi edged their way around the dining room table, and were held up by one of Max’s great-uncles standing in their path, taking his time choosing a pastry. They smiled polite greetings and tried unsuccessfully to avoid bumping into anyone. Mr. Levy from two blocks down grumbled as he raised his cup above his head to keep it out of harm’s way.
“Mazel tov!” shouted Avi, throwing his arms up, and nearly knocking the cup out of Mr. Levy’s hand. “You’re engaged!”
“I know!” Max beamed. His eyes were a little bloodshot and glazed, wider than normal. He looked exhausted.
“How did that even happen?”
“Honestly, I have no idea. One minute we’re dating, and bam, next thing I know, I’m standing here.”
Avi laughed. “How does it feel?”
“Amazing – I think. No time to think – I’ve spoken to a thousand people since Friday – oh, man, you know how some people just say stupid things?”
“So someone I told, first thing he said was, ‘Did you get tested for Tay-sachs?’ Can you believe that?” Max laughed.
“Wow,” said Avi. “Crazy. So” — he lowered his voice — “did you?”
“First week, duh.”
Avi nodded. He was spared the need to respond by the arrival of Max’s uncle Chaim, a tall, roundish man from Brooklyn, who was late because of traffic on the highway.
“Construction on a Sunday!” Avi heard him say, as he edged away from the epicenter of the room. His mind shouted Max’s words: “First week, duh. First week, duh. First week, duh.”
Avi and Nechama had been dating for a month before getting tested two weeks ago. It didn’t really seem necessary; Tay-sachs disease was more of a bogeyman than a real threat, an old and dead specter of old and dead threats to the Jews. Who knew of a couple breaking up because they were both carriers?
“What’s the best food here?” Avi asked when they got out of the scrum around Max.
“The blondies are good,” said Ezra, taking another. He saw Avi looking into the living room and said, “I don’t think Nechama is here yet.”
Avi laughed nervously. “Good…”
“Why did you guys break up?” asked Ezra, chewing on the blondie.
“It’s a long story.”
“How long can it be? You were fine on Thursday, and broke up on Friday.”
“So does this mean you’re free?”
“I dunno. Why?”
“Shani wanted to set you up with Sarah Lipsky. I can find out what she’s up to.”
“Oh. Not now.”
“Okay, never mind,” said Ezra, realizing he’d overstepped. It was hard not to, though, in the Modern Orthodox world, where the shidduch system holds sway – where everyone has an opinion on dating and everyone wants to share it.
But Modern Orthodox Jews like Avi and Ezra liked to believe that they didn’t follow outdated, nosy methods, sending out character resumes to be approved by everyone from your mother to your aunt’s third cousin before the pair could ever meet. It was all a big matching game. You matched your religiosity, your feelings on moving to Israel, your intent to own a TV – and if you could, you matched your heart and soul.
Beneath it all, you matched your genes, waiting for a call from the genetic testers, interpreters of Fate dressed in lab coats and latex gloves, declaring a match safe or not.
The genetic necessities made the new system impossible to fully avoid. In every generation, the dating pool grumbles and complains, but the system adapts itself to changes in culture and science, making it just barely acceptable, ensuring that everyone buys in eventually.
And people enjoy some parts of the system, in spite of themselves. Avi had to admit to needling Max and Ezra for dating gossip sometimes. Watching a relationship was somehow exciting, and easier than building one himself – that’s what he told Zahava anyway, when they sat in the library in February, working on applications for a student mentorship program.
“That’s dumb,” she said.
“I’m only twenty-one. Why not wait? I haven’t met anyone I really like.”
“That’s stupid. Friends set friends up, it’s how this works.”
“It feels forced.”
Zahava shrugged and pushed back her swivel chair from the table. They were on the fifth floor of the school library. It was quiet. The ancient wooden tables and heavy carpet stifled sound. The lights were fluorescent bright, but somehow the brown floor absorbed the glow, sucking out any nutrients.
“I think you should bite the bullet and get used to set-ups. It’ll give you experience before you meet the girl of your dreams across a crowded dance floor.”
“You’re very romantic.”
“I’m romantically successful. I’m gonna set you up.”
“Ahh, you wouldn’t ask if you weren’t interested.” She smiled and went back to the application, refusing to say anything more that night.
“Interesting that Max and Zahava got tested in their first week,” said Ezra, watching Avi closely. He was staring at the door. Nechama must have arrived by now…
“I think so. I mean, Shani and I waited a few weeks. Or, I guess it just didn’t come up until a few weeks in, you know?”
“Yeah.” Avi did not want to talk about testing. He and Nechama did enough of that, discussing Dor Yeshorim, the organization everyone knew about and nobody mentioned. It told young Ashkenazi Jews whether they both carried Tay-sachs disease. If they did, a child from the marriage would likely be born with the disease, and die in infancy. Avi raised the issue of testing on a Sunday afternoon in March, after his sister Shira yelled at him on Shabbos, “You haven’t been tested yet? Are you crazy?”
It felt too serious to do, an ultimatum on a new relationship. What if Nechama felt it was too early, or what if they both got tested and weren’t compatible, and it ruined everything — this easy relationship? Their version of the game was going smoothly, had been won so easily. Avi could see the straight line to love, marriage, children, and adjacent gravestones in a grassy cemetery that their grandchildren wouldn’t mind visiting.
But if the genes didn’t match, or Nechama wasn’t interested… But she had to be. They’d met each other in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Avi came from Queens and Nechama came from the city, and it was an hour of travel alone, each way, for both of them, and why would they do that when they could have waited a day, and seen each other more easily in the library? Why would anyone travel so long alone on the subway for a person they didn’t care about?
He asked her while they sat on the second floor of the library, where sunlight streamed in through tall windows. Technically they were studying, but Nechama was recounting her battle with a dorm room cockroach. Avi was only half-listening, and when the story ended, he immediately said, “I was wondering, thinking – Shira mentioned – have you been tested for Tay-sachs?”
She looked at him, her brown eyes unblinking. “Tested for Tay-sachs?”
“I mean, as a carrier.”
“Oh. No. Have you?”
“We probably should.”
“I guess so.” She sat very straight. Avi leaned on the table. As far as ways to say “I love you” go, asking about Tay-sachs testing is not extremely romantic. But it serves the same purpose; it’s a commitment.
So they schlepped out to Brooklyn on Thursday afternoon. Avi came down from Yeshiva University’s men’s campus in Washington Heights, meeting Nechama on the women’s midtown campus. They took the B train to Brooklyn, trying to fill the silence with talk about sweatshirt preferences because they couldn’t think of anything else. The elevated train screamed overhead as they entered the grubbily fronted lab. The little building looked squeezed in between the larger buildings flanking it. The inside was clean enough, and the quiet doctor was more or less patient with Avi’s fear of needles. Nechama gave her blood without complaint and they each received a circular band-aid, placed neatly over the needle mark.
“We’re matching!” said Avi, pulling down his sleeve.
“Let’s hope so,” said Nechama, peeling the band-aid away.
“Wow, so hardcore,” Avi teased.
“Well, I’ve been through worse.”
The tension was thawing. The results would arrive in two weeks, and they could only wait, so they found a shawarma place and ate on the subway without shame, ignoring the scandalized looks of other passengers at the mess..
Still, they spoke less often during the wait. Was it Avi or Nechama who whittled down the conversations, hesitating before their talks became too serious, before they became much more than summaries of classes? They were preparing to detach, crouched and waiting for the after.
The results came in on Friday, the day Max proposed to Zahava. Two phone calls were made: one to Avi, and one to Nechama, They were not a match. They were both math majors, they were both from Queens, and they were both Mets fans. Neither of them loved their gap year in Israel. They loved fantasy and Star Wars and beaches and sarcasm… but they were not a match. The voice on the phone said so.
“I never liked biology,” said Nechama, when Avi called.
“Yeah, I dropped AP bio,” said Avi.
“I think I tried to drop bio.”
“Yeah.” Avi did not know how to have this conversation. It wasn’t exactly a break up; it was just the end. What was there to say?
“I really had a good time, Avi.”
“I hope we stay friends.”
Nechama sounded… unconcerned? Relieved? Avi pushed the thought from his mind. “Me, too,” he said, not knowing if he meant it. That didn’t matter though. It was the thing to say.
“I’ll see you at the vort?” asked Nechama.
‘Yeah, it should be nice.”
“Yes. Well, have a good Shabbos, Avi.”
Avi wished he’d said something more, something dramatic and romantic, and less disinterested, like “To hell with genetics! I love you! We’ll figure this out!”
But there was nothing to figure out. And besides, he wasn’t that romantic, and had no idea if he loved Nechama or just enjoyed her company more than the company of others. Maybe there was no difference. He thought out things to say at the vort, but came up with nothing good, nothing that meant anything.
Avi jumped. Ezra laughed and Nechama smiled. “Sorry.”
“How’s the party going on the masculine side?” she asked. She was wearing a deep red blouse and a black skirt. Maybe a little too informal, but she didn’t seem worried. She looked calm, unconcerned, and Avi wanted to ask her how she could just stand there and be so normal when things weren’t normal.
“It’s wonderful,” he said, unsure if he was going for sarcasm or sincerity. “Great blondies.”
“Great blondies,” said Ezra, taking another.
“I’ll try one.”
The three turned and saw Zahava standing behind them.
“Aren’t we supposed to say that to you?” asked Ezra.
“Yes, but you two didn’t come over, so I thought maybe you forgot. That, or you got very frum very quickly and no longer speak to women – in which case, I apologize for how uncomfortable you must feel.”
“No, no,” said Ezra, “It’s just super crowded.”
“Tell me about it,” sighed Zahava. “I’ve just had a hundred people spit in my face each time they shout ‘mazel tov’ at me.”
“Kinda undercuts the words,” said Nechama, as Mr. Sussman’s booming voice cut into the conversation. “Zahava, get over here!” he called, standing next to Max.
“Gotta keep moving,” she said, swinging her arms in a running pose. “Bye, friends.”
The crowd parted as she moved over to Max, and Mr. Sussman started speaking:
“Thank you, everyone, for coming. Thank you to the Rosens – Sam and Esther – for hosting. This, uh, should be the first of many simchas that our families share in. You two raised a wonderful daughter, and we raised an okay son, and they’ve managed to bring these two families together. Just a couple of words to the couple: Max, Zahava, this is just the start. I know you dated for two years –”
“Two and a half,” smiled Max.
Mr. Sussman waved his hand. “Close enough. And now you’ve got the real work, the long way forward. And, well, just stay calm through it all.” He smiled. “That’s all I can say - stay calm. That, and mazel tov.”
“Mazel tov!” recited the crowd.
Nechama looked pensive. “Good speech,” she said, fiddling with a clump of confetti on the tablecloth. “Short and sweet.”
“Yeah,” said Avi, “and nice advice.”
“I guess so. Well, mazol tov again.” She turned, and Avi watched her black hair sway as she walked over to Hannah Berger. Nechama definitely seemed to agree with Mr. Sussman’s advice. He looked down at the confetti. Some of the mazel tovs were bent.
The Rosens and the Sussmans were all trying to get a photo together. Zahava’s grandmother was front and center. Avi looked at Max and Zahava smiling into the camera. They looked happy that they were made for each other, that they were a match. Maybe it was made in heaven, but it was green-lit in a petri dish, where tradition continued to force people together, or apart. The Jewish people could grumble and resist, but in the end, they would give up romance, and bow to tradition’s authority, as they always did. Even Max and Zahava weren’t especially romantic, just romantically successful.
Avi scratched his right arm. Suddenly annoyed with himself, he rolled up his sleeve. “What’s Sarah like?” he asked Ezra, as he ripped off the band-aid.