Blech and the Maiden

The meanest thing I ever did was send someone flowers.

The meanest thing I ever did was send someone flowers.

Everything I couldn't abide in another human being was wrapped up into a tiny five feet tall package named Mindy. She was my co-worker at the Jewish non-profit where I’d been employed for seven years.

Mindy was the apocryphal Upper West Side girl; Orthodox, Jewish, fresh out of college, and in New York to (chastely) find a mate. Mindy was also baallei teshuvah; Hebrew for one who had returned, shorthand for born-again Jewish.

Prior to my employment at this organization I had been unaware of the baallei teshuvah. I thought we Jews were all commie-pinko socialists who had occasional forays into show business, law and medicine. I was surprised to find out there were those amongst us who felt lost from traditions they weren't raised in. I did not know that once they were introduced to those traditions, they would embrace them with the zeal of the converted.

Some of my co-workers kept the Sabbath, Kosher homes and a modicum of modesty in their personal appearance. Though I am Jewish, had been raised Jewish and was in all likelihood going to die Jewish, I didn’t do any of those things. I ate pork. I stayed out late on Friday night. I would wear garments revealing I had Jewish bosoms to the office. Those same co-workers seemed not to care so long as I kept the printer and copier free of paper jams.

Like any good Jewish person, I gnashed my teeth with guilt for not being more frum (observant). But, if G-d was mad at me for not following all 613 of His mitzvot (deeds/obligations) His Divine Presence hadn’t done anything to let me know. I believed if I was to start being more observant out of fear of incurring his wrath He might think I was full of shit.

No one wants G-d to think they’re an insincere asshole, so I never got around to davening (praying) three times a day, having a set of milchik (milk) dishes and a set of flaichik (meat) dishes for both Pesach (Passover) and the rest of the year or going to a mikveh (ritual bath) once a month. All that might bring someone else closer to G-d but me it would bring me closer to a nervous breakdown.

Ultimately I was grateful to have a job that paid well enough to let me spend my free time writing and performing stories. I worked, expecting great rewards for using my talents. I did get some notice but not what I wanted. As I remained in obscurity I chose to believe I wasn’t working for any kind of glory, I just needed to be heard. I swallowed my own kool aid and almost digested it until I would find out that any of my peers were getting more attention than I was. Then I’d seethe with jealousy because I had a day job where I had to sit next to Mindy.

Mindy liked to talk on the phone, a lot. She would speak with her friends/roommates regarding the weeklong process of observing Shabbos, what non-Jews call Saturday.

Monday – “How was your Shabbos?

Tuesday – “Where are you going to spend Shabbos?”

Wednesday – “Should we have people over for Shabbos?”

Thursday – “What are we going to make for Shabbos?”

Friday – “Oy, I have so much to do to get ready for Shabbos.” Indeed, what time was there to complete one’s holy tasks when most of it was spent complaining about them? Twenty-four hours of rest needed 144 hours of preparation, or at least it did if Mindy was involved.

The organization closed two and a quarter hours before sundown on Friday. Mindy would leave at least an hour before that, but not before there were lengthy discussions on which shabbaton had the most eligible bachelors, who’d gotten engaged recently and did they receive a challah basket for the occasion.

When Mindy wasn’t yammering the phone to her friends, she was yammering at me; about how great it was to be in New York; about how her building on the Upper West Side was called the “the dorm” because there were so many young single Jewish women there; about how much she liked her rabbi; about how easy it was to find kosher food.

There were other religious women Mindy’s age in the office. They were FFB (frum from birth) and lived in Brooklyn, Queens or Long Island with their parents. They were social work interns accumulating hours of field work toward their master’s degrees. These women were going to need decent paying jobs, because after they got married and had babies they were looking at 21 years of yeshiva, camp and college tuition. If G-d told them to be fruitful they were to take responsibility for it.

I’d get to answer the interns’ procedural questions, like how to use our database and when they needed to fill out check requests. They could ask me anything they wanted to know as long as they came up with a new question each time. They thought that was hilarious but were good enough to comply with my wishes.

When Mindy found time between Shabbos calls to ask procedural questions she would ask the same question three times in one day. Things like conference calls, saving documents and resending e-mails baffled her. She did nothing to try to solve her predicaments, instead she waited to be told what to do. We were a small organization; new employees either sank or swam. Mindy acted like getting wet would ruin her hairdo.

Things didn’t get done, people got angry. I was one of those people because I had to constantly help her catch up. I hated doing that because that spastic little midget was kicking my tolerance in the balls.

She had the temerity to think I was interesting. When she found out that I wrote, performed and cared a great deal about it she yakked at me about her experience being on the tech crew for her high school’s production of Anything Goes.

“It was lots of fun but that was before I became religious in college. Then, I had more important things to do.” she chirped.

I wanted to punch her for trying to bond with then belittle me in the same breath.

The day she got a boyfriend, everything went up a notch.

Mindy met Yossi at an Upper West Side shul she’d been frequenting. He had a promising position at a well-known investment firm. According to Mindy they were bashert (meant to be), the envy of her roommates and everyone in shul loved their love. The first two weeks of their relationship felt like two years to me because I couldn’t avoid hearing her half of their lovey-dovey cooing over the G-ddamn telephone.

They spent a lot of Shabboses together. Mindy had to spend a weeknight at Yossi’s apartment because they’d had so much fun they didn’t realize it got to 11:00pm. Since it was far too dangerous for Mindy to walk the three blocks from Yossi’s apartment home alone, she stayed over. Yossi slept on the couch and they held hands on the elevator the next morning giggling over what the other people in the building might think.

Her gloating about Yossi became downright competitive when she asked one of her roommates to loan her their apartment’s blech for Shabbos.

A blech is a fitted sheet of aluminum that is designed to cover two adjacent gas burners. A Shabbos observer can do no work; use no fire, nor electricity from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. If one wanted to keep food warm for Shabbos dinner one had to place the blech over the stove, turn on the burner before the sun set on Friday and pray the cholent (beef and bean stew) wouldn’t burst into flames.

Mindy wanted to take the blech to Yossi’s apartment for them to have Shabbos together. From what I could tell Mindy’s roommate on the other end of the phone wasn’t giving it up. Ms. Roomate had invited people over to their place for Shabbos. She needed the blech to feed her guests. Mindy kept harping on the fact that they’d all paid for the blech and she had a right to borrow it.

How much did a blech cost? If I could find one in midtown, could I come back to the office and give Mindy a concussion with it? Would that put an end to the dumbest conversation I ever overheard? I prayed for it all to stop but G-d asserted His wicked sense of humor.

“Jennifer, can I ask you a question?”

“You already did. Perhaps you want to ask me another question,” I said bracing myself to give yet another tutorial on the mysteries of the fax machine.

“I’m having a problem with one of my roommates and I wanted your opinion.” Mindy recounted the tale of the blech. “I told Elisheva she was acting like a first grader and not sharing.”

I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. I remembered being 23. I never thought getting drunk at bars and fucking the miscreants I met there would make me feel morally superior to anyone.

“I guess you guys will have to figure it out.”

I turned back to my computer screen. My spine curved in, my shoulders drew together and my hands assumed a claw-like shape. I looked like a praying mantis but was unable to kill anyone. I couldn’t even shake my fist at G-d. Why was I cursed with Mindy’s presence? Who was she to make me hate my job and my people?

G-d decided to throw me a bone on Valentine’s Day. Though the holiday’s Pagan/Christian roots didn’t make it too popular with the frum crowd, Mindy claimed baalei teshuva ignorance of that and hocked Yossi to pay her tribute. Though Yossi had complied, he’d failed to please her.

“It’s not the bracelet I wanted Yossi. When you give someone something as important as that they should be allowed to pick it out if they’re going to have it for the rest of their lives.”

I had no idea what Yossi’s response was but I wished he could reach through the phone and bitch-slap Mindy. I’d met him only once but I had great rachmones (pity) for him. Mindy had once paraded him proudly through the office, introducing him to all of us. He looked incredibly uncomfortable, unprepared to be a show pony that day. He was slender fellow and close to Mindy’s height. I could see him visibly shrink with every handshake.

Toward the end of February Yossi’s discomfort must have escalated because he called it quits with her. I only knew that because she called him to complain about it.

“You’re just doing this because you’re scared.”

Who wouldn’t be scared by the prospect of spending the rest of their lives with Mindy? Though she’d only been around nine months I felt I’d already done that. I was jealous Yossi found a way to leave. He deserved better than to be browbeaten for his actions. He deserved a reward.

I took a deep breath and typed into my web browser. I looked through the site and found a lovely daisy arrangement. I typed in Yossi’s first and last name in the delivery field. I looked up the address of the firm where he worked and added that too. I sent the arrangement with an anonymous note that read, “Congratulations on a job well done.”

I knew I’d have to be patient and wait for the results of my actions. I could do that, this was my way of finding a sense of peace and a soothing of my neshama (soul).

The next day at 11:00 am I heard from the adjacent desk, “No, I don’t know what ‘Congratulations’ is supposed to mean, Yossi. I didn’t send you any flowers. No I don’t think it’s funny either. I don’t care what you think. Why don’t you ask someone else if you don’t believe me?”

For the first time since Mindy was hired I thanked G-d for my job. It gave me the best damn $39.95 I ever spent.


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