Parashas Va'Yeilech -- Out of My Element: A Glowing Chassan
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 20, 2012
Out of my element
Discussions of the economics of the Orthodox community tend to focus on two themes. The first is the astronomical cost of Orthodox living – school tuitions, summer camps, housing. The other is the social pressure that so many people feel to keep up with the lifestyles of their more affluent neighbors, whether in terms of weddings and bar mitzvahs, vacations, or car make and year.
I always thought I was largely immune to the latter. Perhaps that is because I live in the Israeli chareidi community where wealth confers little status. Though things are changing somewhat, dapei Gemara still remain the currency of social standing. When two neighbors in our building recently did major renovations, I experienced no temptation to follow suit. The thought of enduring months with workmen in the house or of moving out of my apartment entirely was quite sufficient to resist the allure of larger, more attractive floor tiles.
For now, any extra money hidden under the floorboards is set aside for marrying off the remaining bachelors. And I imagine that by the time that task is complete, imy"H, we will conclude that the time left for "passing through," in the Chafetz Chaim's famous moshol, is insufficient to justify an investment in larger, shinier floor tiles. Better to contribute to grandchildren and great-grandchildren's orthodontia.
Nevertheless, thanks to El Al, I recently had occasion to experience what it is like to find oneself in a neighborhood a little bit more upscale than one's finances might allow. And as a consequence, I now have a good deal more sympathy for those who feel the pressure of keeping up with the Cohens.
As I handed in my boarding pass at the gate for a flight back to Israel filled with Nefesh b'Nefesh families, I was told to stand aside. No explanation was given. Nor was there any obvious connection between me and the two women directed together with me to the side – one a student travelling with friends. A few minutes later, we were handed back our boarding passes, or at least I assumed they were the same boarding passes. As I entered the plane, however, I was pointed upstairs to the part of business class upon which I had never before laid eyes.
It has been at least four years since I last won the business class lottery, and I discovered enough new toys to leave me feeling like Willie Wonka in the Chocolate factory. When the steward brought a steaming towel with which to wash my face before take-off, I tried to act non-chalant, as if such service is an everyday occurrence. The slots in the seat back in front of me, into which bottles of mineral water were placed, were so far away that one would have had to stand up just to retrieve the water. (Every seat has enough room in front for the three steps back prior to Shemoneh Esrai.)
But what really caught my eye was the array of buttons on the armrest showing all the different ways in which the seat can be adjusted. Unfortunately, reading instructions has never been a strong point, and none of my children were present to help me out. Soon I found myself moving to and fro, like a little kid at the supermarket who finds the rocking horse ride for a nickel (am I dating myself?) a little bit more than he can handle. Eventually, I managed to shut off the seat, without asking the woman sitting next to me (but far enough away to satisfy the modesty squad) for help. I hoped that she had not noticed my discomfiture, or that I obviously had no previous exposure to five-button seats.
I was not so lucky, however, with respect to the elongated thing poking out from between the seats. Not only did I have to ask what it was, but having ascertained that it was a reading light, I still had inquire further as to how to turn it on. My neighbor was kind enough not to stand up and point at me while yelling, "Imposter!"
Soon it was time to eat. The menu came with a photograph of our master chef, whom we were informed prepares all the meals from the finest of local ingredients. It included a longer wine list than chez Rosenblum, including one marked mevushal.
I could already savor the salmon with the French name. Alas, it was not to be. Business class apparently does not keep an extra supply of glatt kosher meals on hand. And I did not have the presence of mind to tell the steward that I would prefer to skip the meal and catch up on my sleep. So while those around me dined on fine china and silverware, a sealed meal on a plastic tray, with utensils to match, was placed in front of me.
I've long since made my peace with airline food, even the rubberized omelettes magically made to last for weeks. But in my rarified surroundings, I was in no mood to deal with the snapping of my plastic knife and fork as I tried to cut my chicken. The plastic cutlery exposed me to my fellow travelers as an interloper in their sanctum, a member of the hoi-polloi out of his element.
So thorough was the humiliation that as we descended the stairs to exit, I completely forgot to flash a wan smile of noblesse oblige to the throngs being held back by the stewardesses to let us pass.
But just in case, any airs remained from my sojourn in business class, they were more than taken care of by the hour and half wait for my suitcase. I might have travelled business; my suitcase did not.
A Glowing Chassan
Since my column on preparation for marriage three weeks ago, I've unfortunately had plenty of opportunity to learn how important the topic is. A neighbor told me, for instance, that out of his daughter's graduating class of seventee from a highly respected institution in a well-established community six young women are already divorced. His daughter is 24.
Thus it was something of a thrill to speak to an exuberant young chassan last week while stuck for two and a half hours in an airport waiting lounge. (The American Eagle representative informed us that we were the victims of a confidence-inspiring debate between the pilot and the airline: The pilot wanted more fuel, and the airline could not decide whether to give it to him or to bring a replacement crew.)
I had already heard over Shabbos about this young man's engagement to a local girl. (We are related by marriage, though I would not have found that out had he not recognized me from my Mishpacha photo.) The friends with whom I stayed over Shabbos could not speak highly enough of the kallah or her family. To bring home just how special the family is, I was told that they had made fine shidduchim for numerous daughters, despite lacking any money to speak of.
Thus I was able to share with the chassan all the wonderful things I had heard about his kallah. While obviously pleased to hear the opinion of my hosts, he had little need for their compliments. He enthusiastically shared with me the strong impression his kallah had made at their first meeting, despite her relative youth, and could not say enough about her middos.
In short, the only thing he wanted to talk about was the kallah alein. Apart from how much he liked her family, he had nary a word to say about many of the other matters about which chassanim often speak – e.g., the social status of the family, other mechutanim, etc. And the reason was obvious: He could not have cared less.
A number of years ago, I heard that the family of Rabbi Zeidel Epstein, zt"l, the late Mashgiach of Yeshivas Torah Ohr, reject out of hand any shidduch where the other side is wealthy. That is not an attitude widely emulated today. But it was clear to me that from the point of view of this chassan and his family, the other side's lack of substantial financial resources was a ma'aleh, not something to be overlooked.
And not because the chassan's family is so rich that the other side's financial situation is irrelevant. Both his father and grandfather are distinguished talmidei chachamim, who are still in full-time learning. And not because the chassan could not have "held out" for a rich shidduch. I found out later from others that he is a top learner.
As I spoke to the chassan, I could not help thinking how fortunate his kallah is to go to the chuppah knowing that her chassan chose her for nothing besides her personal qualities.
Two other things impressed me about the chassan and left me confident about the life ahead for him and his kallah. First, every time we spoke of anything material – the kallah's ring, the newlywed's apartment – he kept saying, "I like everything," i.e., these things will never affect my simchas chaim.
And the second was the way he quoted with obvious respect the opinions of his mother, a long-time kallah teacher, about all matters connected to marriage, including her recommendation to read the afore-mentioned piece on marriage preparation. When I remarked on how frequently he quoted his mother's opinions, he replied with a smile, "I learned that respect for my mother from my father."
For my part, I can only say that there are few experiences more guaranteed to make an aging curmudgeon feel optimistic about the future than spending a few hours with a young man who glows when he talks about his kallah.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum, Jewish Ethics, Social Issues
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