Find Me a Husband
In the spring of 1992, my wife, Sherri, was working at her alma mater, Bennington College, directing adjunct academic programs. One Thursday afternoon, she happened to pass by the office of her friend, Irene Rozensweig.
Typical late day chat, ending with Sherri explaining that she would be away until Monday. "I'm doing some workshops at a convention in San Antonio."
"Have a safe trip," Irene called out. And as an afterthought, added, "And by the way: find me a husband."
Irene, a Jewish woman, child of two Holocaust survivors, never-married, in her 30s, was at that time involved in a going-nowhere relationship with a going-nowhere man. So the funny, ironic request, "Find me a husband," was neither unusual nor unexpected.
But Irene may have been surprised just a bit when Sherri responded, "Irene: I'm going to a convention of rabbis." To which Irene responded, "Oh—that'd be all right."
Two days later Sherri found herself conducting a workshop for 30 or 40 rabbis. One rabbi in particular stood out from the crowd.
Not surprisingly. Physically, he towered above the rest. About six feet four inches, heavy-set, bearded, what people often describe as a bear of a man. But it was his gentle, warm, bright personality that particularly caught Sherri's attention.
When the workshop ended, Sherri the instructor became Sherri the matchmaker, something she'd never before done.
"Tell me about Howard Jaffe," she asked her friends at the conference. And the responses were all the same. "What a sweetie." "A real mentsch." "A doll." "Thirty-six and never married. Would like to be married. Great guy." "His congregation and his colleagues all adore him."
So Sherri sent him a note: "Hi Howard. I've never written a message like this before, and I don't mean to be intrusive, but after meeting you today, I thought that—well—I have a friend, Irene ..." and so on.
Later, Howard met with Sherri in the lobby.
"Sure. Give her my number."
Which Sherri did when she returned to Bennington. Soon Irene placed a call to Howard at his synagogue, but when the secretary answered, Irene panicked and hung up. Fortunately, her nerves calmed and she tried again, leading to hours and hours of conversation and The Meeting two weeks later. The following December, Howard and Irene were married.
Soon they began working on their most heartfelt goal: a family. But getting pregnant was difficult. They endured the usual round of clinics and experts and finally met with success. Success and success: Irene became pregnant with twins.
I'll skip the details, but simply report that the pregnancy was difficult, and the birth scary. Ultimately Howard and Irene the couple became Howard and Irene the family, blessed with a son and a daughter.
Sherri and I drove down to New Jersey for the huge celebration that marked the bris of the son and the baby-naming of the daughter. It was an incredibly joyful time, and Sherri was hailed for her role in the wonderful story, just as she had been, deservedly, at the wedding.
After the hugs and kisses, after we admired the gorgeous infants, wrapped in flannel and surrounded by all things soft, after we became reacquainted with the siblings and parents and cousins we had met at the wedding, after we ate a bit of the tons of food that filled the dining room, we sat in the living room, talking quietly, in groups of two or three.
That's when Irene told me a story.
Both of her parents were concentration camp survivors. Irene's mother, Helen, was liberated from Auschwitz. Her father, Izzy, survived Dachau, Bergen Belsen, and other camps. The Germans murdered their entire families: Helen's mother, father, and two brothers; Izzy's mother, father, and his four younger sisters. Of their immediate families, Izzy was the sole survivor of his, and only Helen and her sister survived from their family.
During the months of pregnancy, Irene told me, she and Howard debated which names to use, as all expectant parents do. A boy would be named Nathaniel, for Howard's late father. But a girl—for a girl, there were several possibilities: Esther, perhaps, or Sophie, women who had been important in Irene's life, women Irene knew.
And then, as the due date drew close, somehow, quite unexpectedly, Irene had a revelation: through all the years, it was as if her other aunts, her father's sisters, had been forgotten. Nobody carried their names. And so Irene and Howard decided, during the last days of pregnancy, to honor the names of Sela and Pessa Rosenzweig, two teenage girls murdered by the Germans, two teenage girls whom only Izzy Rosenzweig remembered.
And so the names were chosen. The boy would carry the name of his grandfather. And the girl would carry two names honoring her great aunts, Sela and Pessa.
Then something unexpected happened.
For fifty years, Irene's mother told her, Izzy Rozenzweig never, ever spoke of his sisters. Never mentioned their names. It was simply too painful.
But when he learned that his granddaughter would bear the names of his sisters, for the first time it seemed as if a padlocked doorway had sprung open, and the memories poured forth. After 50 years of silence, Irene's father was finally able to articulate his pain, to recall his sisters, and, one might certainly infer, feel a sense that these martyrs would be remembered always through the life of his granddaughter.
Irene and I drifted to different topics. Others joined our small conversation. People entered and left the room, nibbled and toasted, typical of a mid-size celebratory gathering. I continued to chat politely, but my thoughts remained far away, fixed on what Irene had told me about her father.
I was also tired. It was getting late, and we had driven many miles. I sat deep in a comfortable chair, and soon the conversation bypassed me as I pretended to listen. But I wasn't listening. I was watching. The voices became a hum, words indistinguishable. My eyes scanned the living room: people sitting, some in chairs, some on the floor, others standing. Frequent peals of laughter, animated faces, hand and arm gestures.
And beyond them all, the dining room. A table laden with gifts and platters of food, and beside the table, a new playpen where the two infants slept peacefully. Everybody had migrated to the living room. The dining room was empty. Empty except for the babies in their playpen.
We Jews are a people who know unfathomable tragedy. But what our history, both ancient and modern, has shown us, is that sometimes, after the darkest, most frightening, most destructive storm, there is always the possibility of a rainbow.
So this is what I saw through the chatting people sitting and standing in that crowded living room. This is what I saw in the background:
A dining room. Overhead lights out, the space dimly illuminated by the glow from the adjoining kitchen. A playpen with two sleeping infants.
And Irene's father.
He sat alone, in a straight back chair, beside the playpen. Leaning forward. Looking down, silently. Watching the babies. His forearm lay on the rail, and his chin rested on that arm as he stared below at the infants.
With his other hand, he reached down and gently, with the weight of a feather, caressed their soft, tiny heads.