Under the Cherry Blossoms
(Forty years and counting)
When Lisa was a young teen in New Orleans she was too smart to listen. She rode wild stallions. She invited the homeless of New Orleans inside her house to shower and spend the night. She dropped out of college and spent her days trying gurus, experimenting with drugs and sufi dancing.
“What will we do with you?” her father sighed. But she only kissed him on the cheek and asked for more money to finance her search for meaning.
Lively. Rebellious. She answered to no one.
Until she saw the Lubavitcher Rebbe and dropped herself into the foreign lifestyle, embracing it as her own.
She left the wild horses and gurus behind to stay in the house of Meir Abesera, known for introducing macrobiotics to America, and grandchild of the famed kabbalist Baba Sali. He and his wife Esther were afraid this unfettered bird would fly back to Boston to her free flowing hippieness, so invited her to stay with them, in their small Flatbush home. She was going to give this Judaism thing a try.
By day she went to Bais Rivka to learn with the other young women coming to Crown Heights in the 60’s and 70’s, searching for something real, something authentic. By night, she helped them host their innumerable events, their huge Shabbos meals, their wall to wall melaveh malkahs.
Meir’s brothers came for every meal, and Esther and Lisa would cook and serve the homemade Moroccan cigars, the mochi and seaweed, the stewed greens. One Motzi Shabbos, Lisa was carrying a tottering pile of disposable plates, heading for the garbage. About to drop them in the trash (so close!) she felt a firm grip on her hand stopping the freefall of food encrusted plates.
She looked down into the intimidating under five feet tall mother of Meir Abehsera. Everyone called her mamai, Arabic for mother.
“No,” Mamai shook her head vigorously. “No garbage. Wash.” Her English was very accented, but she rubbed her hand back and forth in the air, making the meaning very clear.
Lisa shook her head.
“No, look, paper,” she said. “Garbage.”
“Wash,” Mamai insisted.
It wasn’t a fight she’d win. Mamai came from Morocco. They didn’t waste anything there, certainly not pretty flowered plates. One just didn’t say no to Mamai. She was as short as her sons were tall, thin, but with a commanding presence that demanded obedience. Lisa floundered in this new world, rebuilding her identity, struggling for a new sense of self. The old Lisa would have rebelled against washing those paper dishes. But then again, that was before she met Mamai.
Mamai marched her into the kitchen, turned on the water and stood over her as she washed 89 greasy paper plates. The plastic film over the plate kept them from completely disintegrating. She washed. She prayed. Hoping someone would come rescue her from this ridiculous task. As it turned out, her prayers were answered, but the timing was off..
Plates were neatly stacked in the dish drain, Mamai was out of the kitchen, when Esther Abesera came inside and saw the dripping plates. Lisa could hear her lilting French accent, the burst of laughter. Who in the world washed these disposable plates, she said as she chucked them in garbage.
(A week before she left, a rich Syrian donated a dishwasher to them…too much, too late.)
When Mamai took her arm some weeks later she stiffened. What would it be this time?
She was standing at a lechaim hosted by the Abehseras, guests dancing so hard the pictures on the walls shook and fell to the ground. Meir danced on the table.
Mamai placed a small shard in her hand, a piece of the broken plate.
“Take this,” she said. “Tonight take shower. Wear freshly washed pajamas. Put under your pillow and you’ll dream of your chatan.”
“I did it when she was sixteen,” she continued. “I dreamt of riding a caravan in the desert when a man on a white horse came and asked me to marry him. And that’s what happened.”
Wild and rebellious yes. A skeptic no. Lisa followed the instructions. That night she woke up with a start. Or was she still dreaming? A voice that seemed otherworldly, calling a name. Yaakov, it said. Then a pause. Ben Yehuda.
And she knew. Her husband’s name would be Yaakov.
“I’ll only date someone named Yaakov,” she confidently told the shadchan. A string of awful dates with Yaakovs followed. One guy, recently out of his third marriage, brought her to a wedding to watch him play music, his band partner in the front seat, she in the back. He walked into the wedding hall and she followed, mortified by the all the stares coming her way. Who comes to a wedding a denim skirt? Five hours later, the wedding over, he drove home, got out of the car and left her to walk home. They’d exchanged exactly two words that evening. Hello and goodbye.
One drove her to Boston, taking advantage of the four hour drive to regale her with the details of his fruitarian diet and the effect it had on his digestive system. Naturally they frequented all the roadside restrooms. He offered her a fruit. She took it gingerly, said no to another date.
One sneered at her for buttoning the top button of her flowered dress in 95 degree heat. She was too embarrassed to explain that she was missing the button beneath it. Conversation exhausted, he brought her home after an hour.
One seemed mentally unstable. “You’re so stable, I thought you’d be good for him,” her friend who’d set her up told her afterwards.
Another Sephardic Moroccan family had seen her constantly cooking, cleaning and serving in the Abehsera home and thought she’d make a wonderful domesticated wife for their son. They sat in the living room for an hour, then walked to the pizza store on Kings Highway. He presented her with a three volume set on Pirkei Avos and asked her to marry him. “You don’t know me,” she said flabbergasted. “I know you’re a nice Jewish girl,” he said. “That’s enough.” It wasn’t enough for her!
She started dating men with names other than Yaakov, that crystal clarity of her dream receding in the months that followed.
As a young teen in Brooklyn, Joel was introspective and shy. He was smart, good looking and could shoot a basketball with the best of them. He could also win an Olympic gold medal in low self-esteem.
“Don’t you want to date?” his mother asked. “No,” he said. He shrugged as if he didn’t care. Of course he cared. Of course he wanted to date. But he didn’t know how to ask a girl out. He thought he’d mess up anything he tried. Always in front of him was that vision of his father, hands on his hips, a disapproving look on his face. Dad loved him, sure. But it was his way or the wrong way. And Joel couldn’t be sure of getting it right.
Who would marry me? he often thought to himself. Probably no one. And kids? Forget about them. He’d never know the answers to their millions of questions and they’d think he was a dunce, just like his second grade teacher had taunted him so many years ago when he gave the wrong answer in class.
Meir, his only sibling, became religious. “You’ll never do the same,” his parents said, half statement, half prayer. Driving home from work one day, passing under the Williamsburg overpass of the BQE, he could see the Chassidim walking the streets in their long black frocks, black hats and side curls. They looked as if they were from a different planet. He agreed with his parents. Religion was the last thing he’d ever try.
Until he did.
He’d been in college in Buffalo where he spent hours with the guys in his apartment jamming on the guitar, every so often working all day holding a stop sign for roadside construction, then going home and blowing it all on a few drinks and a poker game.
There’s got to be more than this, he thought.
He found the more he was looking for at Shabbos meals at his brother’s house, then the local shluchim as he finished his BA in Buffalo.
He fell in love with the religious lifestyle, the strong emphasis on family.
Maybe I can do this, he thought, and made his way to Crown Heights. He enrolled in Hadar Hatorah, studying all day, and going to various families for Shabbos meals. The hefker box–a bin of donated clothing — clothed him.
“You lost so much weight,” one of his hosts marveled. Joel didn’t bother to explain that the size 42 jacket hanging on his slim frame had never fit.
One Shabbos he ate at Alessa and Yosef Boruch Wircberg. Men in the dining room, women in the kitchen. He loved to sing, with a rich nuanced voice, quickly learning the Chabad nigunnim, when to sing ay, when to sing yoy.
He was walking out when a young woman approached him.
“Wow, you have a beautiful voice,” she told him. “I really enjoyed it.”
He blushed and wished he hadn’t. “Thank you,” he said. A well of contentment hummed inside at her compliment. No one had ever complimented his singing before.
When his brother moved to Buffalo, he gifted Joel with his close friend Yerachmiel Tillis. “He and Shulamis would love to to have you for Shabbos meals,” he assured him.
Their home was more liberal. Girls on one side of the table, boys on the other.
She was there again. She had the biggest smile he ever saw, an energy radiating from her that made him think of someone in love with life. And not only that. She noticed him eying that fabulous whole wheat challah his hostess made and offered him a slice. Well, maybe three or four slices. It tasted great. He felt nurtured.
Her name was Lisa, he found out, now known as Aliza.
They both became regulars at the Tillis family, often sitting across from one another. They had mutual friends they talked about, sharing snippets of information, little jabs at small talk.
One evening Joel walked into the Cauldron, a funky health food restaurant that served to die for tofu cheesecake, and saw Aliza sitting with her friend Tzivia Chaya.
She’s cute, he thought. I like her.
He didn’t see Aliza looking him over, his plaid shirt, his brown flat hat pulled low on his high intelligent forehead. “That’s Joel, I mean Yaakov” she told her. “I really like him.”
“Good vibes,” Tzivia Chaya whispered. “Good vibes.”
Joel, now known as Yaakov, went to Yerachmiel and Shulamis Tillis. “Can you set me up with Aliza?” he asked.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Shulamis said. “She’s kind of intense for you.”
They asked Aliza. She was shocked. She hadn’t thought the cute guy with the ill fitting clothes was actually interested in her.
“Yes,” she said. “Definitely yes.”
Yaakov and Aliza
Their first date was in the Tillis living room. Yaakov came bearing a whole wheat macrobiotic nut cake that musta weighed twenty-five pounds. Aliza sipped the celestial seasoning herbal tea and Yaakov ate the cake.
“I’m not a big talker,” he said.
“I know.” Aliza smiled. It didn’t matter what he said or didn’t say. She’d wanted to marry him the first time she saw him, the first time she heard him sing.
And he loved her lively personality, her bubbly nature, her ability to listen, really listen to another person.
They talked for two hours. He shared some things he learned in Yeshiva, she related things she learned in seminary.
Their second date was in another living room. This time of their mutual friends, Rochel Blima and Tzvi Thaler. Aliza was house sitting and the aroma of burnt food hung in the house. Trying to be helpful, she’d burned more than one pot…
Yaakov walked home in an elevated mood, singing all the way.
He felt connected to her. He knew he could feel happy with her, could imagine spending a life together.
Their third date was in the Botanic Gardens. They walked around, admiring the flowers, slipping in and out of words and silence.
They wandered into the small Japanese garden that surrounded the lake, stood beneath a blooming cherry tree, blossoms blanketing the ground.
“I spoke to my mashpia, Rabbi Veshedsky,” he said. Pause. “I told him I’m dating and that I wasn’t sure how to know when it’s the right person.”
She waited. Curious. He took another breath and continued.
“This is what he told me.
‘There are three questions you have to ask yourself.
Is she smart? Is she healthy? Is she pretty?”
What does it mean smart? Not stupid.
What does it mean healthy? Not sick.
And what does it mean pretty? Not ugly,
If you can answer all questions in the affirmative it’s a good indication that it’s right for you…”
His voice trailed off. Yaakov searched her face carefully. He found what he was looking for, that flash of realization in Aliza’s face that this was not just a cute story.
She smiled and he felt ready to ask the next question. “Do you think your parents will like me?”
A brief flash of disappointment at the proposal (he’d make it up twenty years later) and then the ebullient smile that lit up her face.
“Of course,” she said. “They’re going to love you.”
A lot would happen next. They’d write to the Rebbe for a bracha to get engaged and spend a few frantic days before realizing the letter wasn’t put in the right pile. They’d get a heartfelt bracha from the Rebbe on their engagement, get married, have eight children and lots and lots of grandchildren. Yaakov would discover all his fears were unfounded–he made an excellent husband and father.
They’d open up their house to countless guests, a warm home filled with people, niggunim, Torah and love.
And before they’d take that step, they’d go into Yechidus, stand motionless, forget their words, get lost in an existence bigger than them, as the Rebbe showered them with brochos. “You’ll have a warm home, a varem shtub, filled with light,” he said.
And so it was.