J.J Gross

Bread of Affliction – A Passover Tale

“Ha lahma anya di ahalu avahsana” — for Rabbi Shmuel Hollander this was always a favorite moment in the Passover seder, one in which he took particular pride, this year especially.

He was surrounded by nearly all of his children – and they were many. His youngest were eight year-old boys, rambunctious, sufficient unto themselves, sharing the fraternal secrets and shenanigans of identical twins. The younger of the two, by 24 minutes, would be chanting the Four Questions imminently in Yiddish and Hebrew. Rav Hollander would kvell as this child would sing the words “Tateh leben, ich vell dir fregen dee fier kashes.”

The oldest children were already married. Infants and toddlers tugged at the long skirts of bewigged mothers; his two eldest daughters and one daughter-in-law resplendent in their yom tov finery.

Just this past Shabbos he had told his congregation; “According to the Torah, children are everything.” It had been his annual Shabbos Hagodol homily, the ‘great’ Sabbath that precedes Passover. The theme of his speech was ‘The Four Children of the Hagadah’.

Rav Hollander had stood on the bimah wearing his tallis over his head, rocking back and forth as was his custom when trying to inspire the congregation. The sanctuary was packed, both the men’s and women’s sections were full. “Pesach is all about children”, he had declared. “It is about our obligation to communicate to our offspring, our progeny, our sons and daughters, the fact that it is we — we, all of us here — who were redeemed from Egypt, not just our ancestors 3000 years ago. Indeed, the Hagadah tells us that it is a mitzvah for each of us, each of you here, yes, each… of… you… here to perceive of yourselves as if you had been redeemed from bondage in Egypt. This is what you must, absolutely must communicate to your children and grandchildren.”

And then he went on to enthrall the congregation with the beauty of the Torah’s approach to children. Seizing the edges of his tallis for maximum dramatic effect, he elaborated on the significance of the four sons, the four children, described in the Passover Hagaddah.

“Just look at the greatness of our Torah”, he had told his audience. “Yes, the Torah, our holy Torah describes four types of children — the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who cannot even articulate a question. And yet … and yet all of these sons, all of these children are included. All of them are invited to sit at the seder table. And we are obligated to interact and dialogue with each child regardless of whether he is wise, or wicked or, God forbid, intellectually challenged.” Rabbi Hollander had astutely picked up the politically correct parlance, and resisted the instinct to say ‘retarded’. “Because the Torah is inclusive, in-clusive. The Torah accepts all children, and tells us to deal with them in a manner that best suits their individual temperaments. This is the lesson of the Hagadah, and this is the secret to our survival as a People.”

Rabbi Hollander was a man in his prime, a man who looked forward yet to many years of seders, years during which his progeny would increase. There was no reason to believe he would not live to see himself grandfather to seventy grandsons and granddaughters, perhaps more. And great-grandchildren too, in abundance.

The long dining room table was glorious with a thousand points of light. The glow of candles and the glare of chandelier bulbs refracted through dozens of crystal goblets, and glanced off the polished silver of some thirty kiddush cups and a half dozen sterling trays and bowls — serving pieces used exclusively on Pesach. For his family alone, there were thirteen festival candles that had been kindled and blessed by his rebbetzin, one representing each of their children, plus a candle each for themselves.

Also gracing his seder table was a sprinkling of local politicians, judges and fixers mostly accompanied by their wives, one accompanied by a woman whose status was a bit murky. For reasons not always altruistic, these hard-nosed gentiles had helped his synagogue navigate a shark-infested bureaucracy and the gaggle of citizen watchdog groups comprised mostly of liberal Jews. These groups had militated mightily against his shul’s plans for expansion, necessitating radical zoning variances. Thanks to these gentlemen, the municipal requirements for the parking lot had conveniently evaporated for far less than it would have cost to conform to the statutes.

Yes, Rabbi Hollander’s Midwestern shul was burgeoning. From a small beis midrash located in what had been a pizza shop on a sketchy strip mall, it had expanded into a full-blown complex on a large corner lot at a prime residential intersection.

The shul’s grand ballroom was an instant success — the venue of choice for better weddings and bar mitzvahs. Even the Conservative Jews, those who could afford it, had their affairs in Rabbi Hollander’s synagogue. For despite its official name, everyone referred to it as “Rabbi Hollander’s shul”, as if it were a private enterprise.

Income from the ballroom and catering now accounted for over half the synagogue’s revenues, and helped boost the rabbi’s salary to a sum that placed him at the very top of his game.

The synagogue also boasted a wing of classrooms, a state-of-the-art multi-media room, and a resident kollel in which young married scholars were paid to study Torah by day and teach adult classes by night.

The rabbi’s study alone had cost nearly $50,000 to decorate. Shmuel Hollander was especially fond of its custom Italian sofa. During the late morning hours, the sunlight filtered through a round stained glass window, bathing the sofa’s soft, cream-colored leather in its own warm halo. Lying on his prized divan, Rav Shmuel Hollander would peruse the New York Times, gleaning tidbits that he could weave impressively into his Shabbos sermons.

It was all a far cry from his humble beginnings, and validated his decision nearly twenty years ago to leave the yeshiva and pursue a pulpit career despite the admonitions of his rosh yeshiva. “A rov, a talmid chochom, has no business being a ‘rabbi’ of a synagogue,” Rav Yeruchom Meitchet had warned. “Who knows what kind of people will be there – surely not bnai Torah.” The way he had pronounced ‘rabbi’ one might have thought he was referring to a particularly odious rodent or insect; and ‘synagogue’- see-nah-gug – like a house of ill repute. Rav Metichet had little use for ordinary Jews, except when it came to raising funds for the yeshiva.

In large measure, Congregation Kahal Adas Shomrei Emunim had grown thanks to Rabbi Hollander’s natural charisma ­– a charisma he had further polished by secretly taking a Dale Carnegie course. He had a flair for reaching out and connecting to others — especially successful young men and women who had not been blessed by their assimilated parents with a proper Torah education.

Shmuel Hollander’s innovative “Learning and Lunch in the Law Firm” and “Torah on the Trading Floor” programs had earned him a growing coterie of students, followers, congregants and, above all, donors — Jews who were hungry for the spiritual leaven he lavished so generously on strangers. Some of his more recent devotees were seated at his seder table as well. He noted with satisfaction that they were hanging on to his every word. It had never occurred to him that school teachers, social workers, college instructors and government workers might be just as hungry for the word of G-d as dermatologists, investment bankers and corporate litigators.

* * *

“Ha lahma anya di ahalu avahsana b’arah dímitzrayim – This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the Land of Egypt.” Rabbi Hollander stood tall, clad in his freshly laundered and crisply starched kittel. He wore the pure white kittel over his finely tailored suit coat even thought it would have been perfectly acceptable to remove his jacket first. Hollander was a man who understood the impact of formality, and gladly sacrificed physical comfort for the dividends of image. As if by sheer willpower, he could suppress his sweat glands while wearing a three-piece suit, French cuffs, and tightly knotted tie even under a hot August sun.

A fine new Homburg, purchased during a recent shopping expedition in Brooklyn, was perched like a black crown on his head, adding five inches to his robust frame. It was imported from Austria and made of the finest rabbit felt. Rabbi Hollander either missed the irony of a rabbinic hat coming from the same factory that produced the headgear of the Waffen SS, or more likely, he didn’t care.

“The right hat broadcasts ‘rabbi’ the way gold braiding proclaims ‘general’ on a brigadier’s visor” he had explained to his rebbetzin once when she objected to his spending $250 on a hat.

His neat but full beard, now salt and pepper, inspired confidence in his congregants, the women especially. It communicated authenticity and authority, a link with the past, a visual reference to ancestors of another time and place.

Rabbi Hollander sensed that he radiated a power that would enable him to easily and discreetly take advantage of his position, especially with newly minted widows in quest of solace, or incipient divorcees seeking his wise counsel at a time of particular vulnerability. In fact it was more than just an intuition. He was aware of learned colleagues in Monsey and Flatbush who knew how to manage such situations.

Just last week Nancy Kornfeld had come in unannounced to ask some questions concerning how to prepare her kitchen for Passover. “Do I have to line my sink with aluminum foil?” Her tone had been coquettish. It wasn’t just his imagination.”Is it really necessary, Rabbi, to scrub the grout on the backsplash of my sink with a toothbrush?”

Mrs. Kornfeld was neither a widow nor a divorcee. In fact her husband was the shul’s president, even though Rav Hollander knew Mr. Kornfeld was not beyond a round of golf on Saturday afternoons. Her questions were obviously a pretext, the responses had been clearly listed in the shul’s pre-Passover bulletin.

It couldn’t be just a coincidence that Nancy Kornfeld knocked on his door during the secretary’s lunch hour – a time when the Rabbi would be alone and unattended in his study. He couldn’t help but notice the supple breasts as she leaned forward like an eager schoolgirl to take note of his instructions on preparing the microwave for Passover use. Surely she was aware of what she was doing, he had thought, and had chosen the somewhat daring blouse for his sake. Besides, her nipples were evidently tumescent against the thin fabric – a stark contrast to those of his wife, which had endured the wear and tear of eleven hungry infants and the ravages of middle age. Rabbi Hollander prided himself on his exquisite self-control. Yet he thanked God that his visitor was married. Had she been a widow or divorcee he might have made for easier prey.

* * *

Like a major-domo, Shmuel Hollander balanced the silver tray of hand-made shmura matzah on the palm of his left hand. With his right hand he retrieved the remaining half of the middle matzah, deploying a pincer-like move that required deft use of his middle and index fingers. The other half of the matzah had been broken off earlier and hidden away with great fanfare as the afikoman, which would be the object of an intense treasure hunt by his younger children during the seder meal.

Rabbi Hollander brandished the half matzah like an admonition before his adoring family and enthralled guests, then cleared his throat in order to intone the ancient Aramaic words.

Was it just his imagination or had the piece of shmura matzah suddenly acquired a life of its own? Was his normally steady hand trembling, or did he actually feel a pulse in the round edged, overdone half matzah? Something strange was happening. He felt it, very subtly, an imperceptible tremor in the tips of his fingers. He had baked this matzah himself – traveled to New York in fact to partake in the great mitzvah of baking one’s own matzah.

For the briefest moment Rabbi Hollander imagined he saw the face of his absent daughter Shaindy etched in the ridges and rows of the matzah. Her mouth appeared wide open as if in a silent scream, her hands cupping her ears. She looked very much like that famous drawing she had so often sketched from memory while daydreaming in class, instead of taking notes on the commentaries of Rashi and Ibn-Ezra like all the other girls.

Yes, the reading was in Aramaic, since Aramaic was the lingua franca when this text was composed by the sages of the Talmud. “Ha Lahma Anya is not a prayer”, he told his rapt audience, “it is an invitation, so that all passersby might hear and comprehend the words flowing through open windows – it is an announcement, a proclamation, a clarion-call for anyone in need to come join in the Passover festivities.”

Shmuel Hollander shuddered as if a blast of frigid air had suddenly blown through the dining room. What if Shaindy should come walking in? What would he do if his errant daughter decided to show up at this precise moment, just as he would proclaim ‘Kol dihfin yeisei v’yeichol, kol ditzrich yeisei v’yifsach’ – let all who are in need come and eat, let all who are wanting join us for the Passover?”

The words were intended literally, yet he had turned the other way when his wife mailed Shaindy a check with a note; Tatty joins me in wishing you a happy Pesach, the note had said. Enclosed is $1,000. Use it in good health in Florida or Israel or wherever your Pesach plans may take you.

Gittel assumed, and he had concurred, that the underlying message was clear. Shaindy should go anywhere she liked as long as she did not show up at the family seder. The embarrassment might be too much.

* * *

Shmuel Hollander considered himself a blessed man. His devoted wife, his aishes hayil Gittel, was a woman of many talents. An outstanding homemaker, a brilliant cook, a gifted hostess, and an organized and disciplinarian mother to their eleven children.

As a young man he had been more of an idealist, and had chosen yichus, lineage, over money when it came time for him to marry. Gittel Hollander was the daughter of a prominent British Rav, and hailed from a long line of respected Lithuanian rabbonim. Her dowry was paltry, but she had a bearing and an accent that belied her modest purse. She also had the somewhat chilly reserve of the British ­­– something he soon enough came to realize was more than skin deep. Paradoxically it made her an excellent hostess. Americans were chumps for a British accent, even if it was more Stamford Hill than Knightsbridge. His marriage to Gittel had burnished his image and helped accelerate his career.

Gittel Hollander ruled her roost with a firm hand. The children were immaculately turned out. Their beds were always made. They were never late for the school bus. Yes, his rebbetzin was the perfect complement to a man like himself. She was a woman who demanded order and knew there was only one way to raise a Jewish child. She was parsimonious with her hugs and kisses, far less sparing with the rod.

As a parent, Rabbi Hollander had all but abdicated any active involvement. After all, he convinced himself, it is a woman’s job to imbue children with Torah, as it says; “Listen my child to the admonishment of your father and do not stray from the Torah of your mother.”

While still in the yeshiva kollel, he had learned how to adroitly deflect domestic responsibility. Kollel men understood that they had more important things to do than occupy themselves with mundane matters such as household chores and child rearing. They had Torah to learn, from morning to late at night, except for a two-hour nap in the afternoon — a nap that ended just as the wife would be returning from her job as a teacher, and the children from their various schools and daycare centers. In this their wives were complicit ­– devout Bais Yaakov graduates who had been imbued from early on with the understanding that a woman’s greatest joy is supporting a husband who sits and learns.

The Hollander children loved their father. Yes, he was absent or unavailable most of the time. But to the extent that he was present, he was jovial. He would pinch the cheeks of the little ones, tousle the hair of the older kids, smile, ask them how their day was in school. He rarely waited for an answer. Still, his good spirits affected the home environment, and the children tended to be happier when he was around, which wasn’t often.

With a wife like Gittel, Shmuel Hollander was granted peace of mind and the necessary freedom to study, write, and travel. Rav Shmuel Hollander was a popular guest lecturer, much sought after for his rare combination of Torah knowledge and ability to express himself in an English untainted by the yeshivish malapropisms that hobbled so many of his colleagues. For this, too, he was indebted to Gittel whose language skills were far superior to those of her American born counterparts. The honoraria he received for his lectures were not insignificant, a wonderful hedge against the leaner years of retirement. His specialty was children and the challenges of raising a ‘Torah-true’ child. He was considered something of an expert in frum pedagogy. After all, a man with eleven children, he must surely know something.

Shmuel Hollander had a way of orating the most rigid and uncompromising views on education, kashruth, family purity, Sabbath observance and feminine modesty in a manner that seemed at once sophisticated and palatable. He had an endless capacity to pluck impromptu metaphors, similes, aphorisms, and euphemisms from thinnest air. He was a master of the homiletic trick of elongating a sermon by repeating each noun three times using three different words; “a vase, a jug, a pot” … “flowers, blossoms, a bouquet” … “a building, a structure, a house”. Above all he knew how to project an aura of consummate tolerance that belied a rigid, fundamentalist agenda, one to which he no longer subscribed to quite the same extent, yet one that he seemed unable to shake. He could see no profit in rocking the boat.

As for his own children, Rabbi Hollander, or “Tatty” as they called him, might occasionally be called upon to admonish one of the boys if a less than stellar report card arrived in the mail. But he sounded more like a grandfather than a father when he did so. He couldn’t muster the necessary bile, and would end up fishing a dollar out of his pocket and say “This is our little secret. Make sure your next report card is better, I can’t afford to pay you every time you fail.”

Beyond that, knowing they were in the most capable hands, he didn’t expend much time or attention on his sons and daughters — especially his daughters — while they were young. Their turn would come when they reached marriageable age, when it was appropriate for him to find each of them a suitable shidduch. He would make use of his considerable contacts in Lakewood and Monsey, Borough Park and Antwerp to find just the right choson for a Hollander daughter, the right kallah for a Hollander son.

Shmuel Hollander had an exhaustive list of questions with which he would grill the matchmaker.

“Tell me about the grandparents”, was the way he opened such a conversation. “Were the grandfathers learned?”… “What country did they come from?” A lot could be gleaned on this basis – determining that there were no converts, divorces or other major blemishes in the candidate’s recent lineage. With the ice thus broken, he would proceed to a litany of more specific questions. “What does the father do for a living?”…”Do they own their own home?” … “Does he learn Torah on a daily basis?”

Satisfied that the boy’s or girl’s father was not illiterate in Torah, he would narrow the interrogation to the kind of seemingly insignificant details that, as he would often say, speak volumes. “What are the siblings like?” … “If any are married, who are their spouses?” … “Is there a television in the house?” … “Does the family place a white tablecloth on the Shabbos table?” …”Does the boy wear colored shirts on weekdays” … “What about jeans or khaki pants during the vacation months?”

Once he was convinced there would be no embarrassment in these aspects, Rabbi Hollander would start drilling down to more practical matters, specifically finances. He would not allow any of his sons to marry a girl whose parents could not afford to support the young couple in a kollel. As for his daughters, he preferred successful young businessmen or professionals as sons-in-law, so long as they were frum and knew how to wear a black hat.

It never occurred to Rabbi Hollander to ask whether the parents were magnanimous, whether they gave serious charity, whether their homes were open to the needy, whether they invited the unaffiliated to their Shabbos table. Such questions were never asked.

The interrogatories were intended above all to uncover any carefully hidden skeletons in the prospective family’s closet. Shidduchs were not to be taken lightly. Frum parents were as skilled as Brazilian plastic surgeons when it came to nipping and tucking personal shandas. Shmuel Hollander was perhaps a bit more skilled than most. A bit of dissembling was acceptable in order to forestall any glitches when attempting to marry off a child. One black sheep out of eleven is not such a bad statistic, he convinced himself. But he knew very well how others might perceive it. Should an ounce of milk fall into a pot containing ten ounces of chicken soup, the entire pot would be considered treif

Once a right match was found, Rabbi Hollander deployed his considerable negotiating skills in order to finesse the terms of what each set of parents would have to pay for at the weddings. Armed with the information he had gleaned or inferred from the matchmaker, and from subsequent calls to colleagues and roshei yeshiva who knew the prospective boy or girl and their family, Shmuel Hollander knew just how far he could push. To date he had always driven a shrewd bargain. With so many children to marry off, he had to be smart when it came to such things. Thank God every child had turned out, or seemed to be turning out, just right … with the single exception of course.

Ten weddings could bankrupt an imprudent father – especially one who was obligated to invite at least 400 guests, of which an increasing number were his own children and grandchildren. Perhaps he should be thankful to his middle child. Shaindy would likely never get married. He thought of her as broken. Yes, middle and broken like the matzah he was holding up at this very moment. The matzah that now seemed to beat with a pulse of its own.

* * *

Rabbi Hollander was proud of his Gittel. After 32 years of marriage, 32 Passovers, he had yet to find a spec of leaven during the search for chametz on the night before the seder. Why, just last night he had gone through every drawer, every shelf. He had crawled on all fours to peer under beds and into the dark corners of rarely used closets. As expected, he found not so much as a candy wrapper, let alone, heaven forefend, the atrophied remains of a cookie or pretzel.

It was during these annual searches, by the light of a single candle as prescribed in the Talmud on the first page of Tractate Pesahim, that he would marvel silently at his wife’s meticulous drawers and closets. He was amazed as he sifted thoroughly through her lingerie, and poked among the styrofoam heads that held her collection of stylish wigs, searching for the overlooked crumb he would never find. The heads were lined up in three rows of four wigs each. In the flickering candlelight they looked like disembodied skulls in the laboratory of some depraved scientist – the dismembered heads of twelve streetwalkers each with a different coloring, a different hairdo.

“Kol dichfin yeisei víyeichol, kol ditzrich yeisei víyifsach – let all who are in need enter and eat, let all who are in want join us for the Passover.” Could it be his stentorian voice was wavering, breaking like that of an adolescent? Suddenly it sounded uncharacteristically thin and high-pitched. Beads of sweat were forming on his brow. Shmuel Hollander felt dizzy. He needed to sit. Instead he put the half matzah on the table. He laid it down gently, as if it were a small child, then removed his hat briefly to let some air ventilate his perspiring scalp.

* * *

Shaindy Hollander, their middle child, was now 22. Other than the fact of her birth, she was a stranger to her father. There was so little he knew about her. For the past five years she had been living on her own in a series of tiny studio apartments on the peripheries of Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn. He had heard that she was employed as the art counselor in a nursing home. That she was attending Brooklyn College at night. That she was a bartender in Greenwich Village, rachmono litzlon.

Apparently Shaindy lived where she did not because she had anything in common with the community, but because frum neighborhoods offered an abundance of affordable apartments carved illegally out of basements and garages. Anyone with several hundred dollars in cash could rent such premises with few questions asked. The formalities of a lease were waived in the interests of both landlord and tenant.

Rabbi Hollander had never visited his daughter despite frequent trips that brought them into very close proximity. What would I say to her? How would I be expected to react to what I might find on her walls, in her refrigerator, on her table? he would ask himself.

Brooklyn was where he bought his suits and hats. It was where he shopped for seforim, religious texts. It was where he went to consult with leading Torah authorities on the complex halachic issues that confronted a congregational rabbi in an outlying community. He enjoyed his visits to Brooklyn. There was no use marring these with unpleasantness – especially as it would serve no useful purpose.

Most recently he needed input from a venerable Torah sage concerning the status of a divorcee already married to a Kohen, a member of the priestly caste, by a Reform rabbi. According to the Torah, a Kohen may not marry a divorcee. However, since their marriage was a sham from a halachic standpoint, now that they were becoming religious as a couple, what were their options? Should they separate? Should they remarry in an Orthodox ceremony — which was a non-starter from the Torah’s perspective? Should they remain in the limbo of the status quo?

For Rabbi Shmuel Hollander this was perhaps the most difficult case he had ever dealt with. Here were two people he personally had brought into the fold of Yiddishkeit. Had he known from the outset the man was a Kohen and that his wife was a divorcee, he would never have reached out to them in the first place. For, in truth, their only halachic recourse was to part ways. And now, not only were they committed to a life of Torah and mitzvos – thanks to him – but they were among the four or five wealthiest couples in the shul. A rav shouldn’t know from such headaches, he had said when he shared the problem with Gittel who had responded with an enigmatic shrug, or was it merely indifferent?.

During his sojourns in Brooklyn, Rabbi Hollander would look down the street and peer furtively before rounding a corner. He made a supreme effort to avoid accidentally bumping into Shaindy, especially if he was with someone else. Surely she would be inappropriately dressed, wearing tattered jeans or a sleeveless blouse, which was all she had with her the last time she visited the family. For all he knew she might even have a piercing in her exposed midriff or, worse yet, a tattoo. One such encounter could ruin the marital options of the remaining eight children.

Shaindy had been different almost from the very beginning. She was a daydreamer who exhibited early talent for art and a gift for the written word that was belied by her vocal reticence. Already as a first grader, and well into the second year of high school, her academic performance was erratic. Her schoolwork would seesaw from brilliant to abysmal, often in the same class. From test to test, from report card to report card, she rode a strange roller coaster with utterly unpredictable dips and turns. Instead of notes on Rashi and Ramban, Shaindy’s notebooks were filled with doodles and drawings — cartoons, portraits, flowers, animals, fantastic creatures of her own vivid imagination.

She had been the only one of his children who would enter his study without knocking. She would glide in like a cat, embrace him, give him a kiss and whisper “I love you Tatty” in his ear then glide out. But this had stopped abruptly when she was about nine or ten years old. Rav Hollander suspected his Rebbetzin had something to do with that. He had meant to find out why Shaindy no longer dropped in, but somehow had never gotten around to it.

She was a small girl whose body had ripened early, with lush rounded breasts on a slight dancer’s frame. As a young child she was often dancing. She would plead with her mother for ballet lessons. But her appeals fell on Gittel’s deaf ears. “It would be unseemly for a Rabbi’s daughter to take dance lessons. And besides what good would they do? No one ever saw a ballerina with a sheitel doing the Nutcracker.” Gittel’s responses were barbed, tipped in a toxic finality that left no room for comfort.

Shaindy’s eyes were large and almond-shaped with black irises — full of both wonder and melancholy. He voice was soft and mellifluous, even seductive. Once she had been disabused of her dance fantasy, Shaindy withdrew into her own world, and would spend endless hours humming wordlessly, coloring or drawing or simply staring into space.

She adored the younger siblings, especially her little brothers. Shaindy would roll on the floor with them, make paper cutouts, help them color within the lines. But Gittel – watching like a hawk – saw to it that the sibling attentions of her problem daughter never escalated into influence.

In the kitchen Shaindy was useless. Glasses would get broken. Dairy spoons would show up in the meat drawer. The milk carton would never be properly closed, let alone put back in the refrigerator.

Her teachers were mostly the young wives of the kollel men in Rabbi Hollander’s shul. Their qualifications as educators were minimal. What little they understood about children and teaching was acquired on the job. At parent-teacher conferences, to which only Gittel went, they all sounded the same. “If only Shaindy wouldn’t daydream”… “If only Shaindy would pay more attention in class”… “She is really such a sweet child, but her mind is not in the work” … “She doesn’t daven like she should” … “Maybe she needs a tutor”…

Normally they would have suggested she be taken to a Rav, to seek his advice. But Shaindy’s father was the rabbi in town, so this was not really an option. And besides he was the authority on children. His expertise was celebrated far beyond the city in which they lived. His book ‘Ten Steps to Guaranteed Nachas’ could be found in thousands of frum homes.

Rabbi Hollander assumed it would all straighten itself out with time. Besides, at the end of the day, so long as Shaindy didn’t cause any scandals and learned how to cook, she could settle down and be a good wife and mother. It never occurred to him that this daughter was radically different; that the school she was attending might be suffocating her.

Shmuel Hollander could not conceive of the possibility that Shaindy needed different opportunities, a different kind of oxygen. He would often declare, “Torah is all the oxygen one needs. Torah has all the answers.” And if in his heart of hearts he didn’t believe this entirely, that was the message he preached. It was the official stance of the Gedolim – the Council of Torah Sages – and he was one of their greatest communicators to the English-speaking public. Besides, any latitude on his part could ruin things for the other children by setting a bad precedent. Worse yet, it would provide grist for resentful rivals who would be more than ready to besmirch Rabbi Hollander’s sterling reputation.

* * *

In the tenth grade Shaindy was expelled from the local Bais Yaakov girls’ high school. The principal, an irritable, rigid and very devout man, had paid a surprise visit to the classroom. As was his habit, he entered from the door at the rear of the room and spied “that Hollander girl” putting the finishing touches on what was clearly a self-portrait. In the drawing, a nubile adolescent was laying naked on a sofa in front of a small, round stained glass window through which sunlight filtered in, casting its rays on her full breasts and adolescent belly. A serpent coiled its way around her thigh, like braiding, and was flicking its forked tongue toward her navel. The window and sofa seemed eerily familiar.

The Rav and his Rebbetzin were mortified. They were shocked both by the drawing and by Shaindy’s silence when asked to explain herself in the principal’s office. “You’re standing there like a deaf mute,” Rebbetzin Hollander snapped as she shook her recalcitrant daughter by the ear.

They were less concerned with their troubled child than they were with damage control. It never occurred to them to see the drawing as anything but filth. They ignored the manifest talent and exceptional draftsmanship. Whatever message the picture was meant to convey eluded them entirely. “This is disgusting”, Rebbetzin Hollander had declared, as her husband nodded in mute affirmation. Yet, without admitting it openly, he could appreciate the talent his daughter had. Gittel Hollander had no such recognition. She knew exactly what needed to be done.

It was decided to ship their difficult child to Jerusalem where she would dorm in a seminary for girls, an institution known for strict discipline and a cloistered environment – a place where opportunities for misconduct were minimal. “We’re doing this for our other children”, they convinced themselves, “so that Shaindy shouldn’t be a bad influence on the smaller ones.”

With cautious relief they waved a cool goodbye to their 15 year-old daughter as she boarded the plane that would take her to where she would be out of sight and out of mind. Rabbi Hollander suppressed the lump in his throat. After all, she was his child, yet she looked like a abandoned orphan on the gangway. It hurt him that she never turned around for a final wave.

The Jerusalem solution did not last very long. Once again Shaindy was expelled for repeated truancy. She would miss morning prayers, the principal reported. She would be caught eating before making the requisite blessings over the food. She would be seen wandering about in West Jerusalem peering into art galleries, smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee in cafes. She would be spied talking to boys. That she lasted as long as she did, the principal told Rabbi Hollander, was only out of respect for his reputation and prominence as a Torah scholar.

From there, Shaindy was shipped to the home of distant cousins, a childless middle-aged couple in Brooklyn. The wife was famous for her cooking and baking. Rabbi Hollander was hopeful that Shaindy’s artistic inclinations could be channeled into the frostings on cakes, that her creativity would find an outlet in preparing gourmet cholents and gefilte fish in aspic. This too did not last very long. Sandwiches were a struggle for the girl. Cooking was out of the question.

She would lay in bed all day, then leave the house early in the evening and return in the wee hours without offering any explanation or apology. A search of her room revealed paraphernalia for smoking marijuana and a packet of birth control pills. Rumors were afoot that she had been seen kissing a ‘shvartze’ in a playground on the outskirts of Flatbush, a place where no decent human being would ever be caught.

* * *

“Enough is enough”, Rebbetzin Hollander had declared. “If she wants to live like an oisvurf, like a shiksa let her take care of herself!”

Shmuel Hollander wasn’t convinced that abandoning his daughter was the right thing to do. But in the interests of sholom bayis, of domestic tranquility, he let his rebbetzin have her way. Besides, it was too late in the game for him to suddenly assert himself as a parent, not to mention the fact that he was overextended, what with his shul, his lecture itinerary, his outreach to others.

* * *

Everyone was staring at the half matzah laying in the center of the perfectly set Passover table. The piece of shmura matzah had taken on a life of its own. Its ridges and indentations appeared to be moving, consolidating, then smoothing themselves out. The blackened edge of the brick-oven matzah was turning white as it began to metamorphose, reverting once again into a flaccid patch of dough.

Rabbi Hollander sat rigid and upright at the edge of his chair – the plush armchair in which he would normally recline on this special night like an oriental potentate, against a pile of soft pillows. His Homburg hat was now tilted far back on his head, like on a riverboat gambler down on his luck. His skin had gone pale, his beard suddenly snow white like that of the 18 year old Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria who overnight acquired the visage of a hoary sage and declared; “Behold I am like a man of 70.”

Slowly the dough pulled itself together into a small ball and, as if energized by yeast, it began to rise and twist and stretch into a raw loaf of pure leaven. Leaven on my Passover table! he thought to himself in horror. Pure chametz! Not merely in my home, not among my wife’s neatly ironed undergarments or her closeted batallion of wigs, but emerging from the very seder plate itself! Could there be any greater nightmare than this?

He wondered what the halachah was. Yes, before Pesach, he had made the requisite declaration that “Any and all leaven in my possession is like the dust of the earth.” But what of leaven that first entered his premises after Passover had begun; chametz that was not present at the time of the declaration? Was there even a precedent for such a situation?

The dining room had become so silent one could actually hear the dough changing. It made soft sighing sounds, like the breathing of an infant, and lapping noises like the skin of a small baby slapping against a changing table.

Gradually the lump of amorphous dough began taking on a shape — soft curves, like the infinitely variable cambering that defines the female form. The loaf was gestating rapidly now. What had at first seemed to Rabbi Hollander like breasts and thighs and belly, were now evolving into the braided shape of, yes, an unbaked challah.

Rabbi Shmuel Hollander watched in mesmerized horror as the raw challah now began to radiate an intense heat as if it were being baked in an invisible oven, as if the heat of all the light bulbs, the glow of all the crystal and silver were enough to bake a loaf of bread. The loaf was growing magnificently as it gradually turned light brown, then dark brown, its top glowing with the sheen of egg white. The unmistakable freckles of poppy seeds began dotting its most prominent and fluid curves. The curves were as perfect and erotic as the breasts of Eve laying naked in Eden, of an Ingres Odalisque, of Shaindy’s self-portrait on the sofa in his study.

Inspired by many true stories.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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