Debbie Stern* did not rate high on the beauty scale—nor any scale, for that matter. She had no charm to speak of. Everything about her was just a few degrees below average; though she wasn’t an official pity case, she was as close as you could get. Debbie’s saving grace, however, was her father’s bank account. A power player in the world of technology, Mr. Stern made a killing during the ’90s Internet bubble and had since built up a multi million dollar empire that employed a good percentage of our community. So while the parents of a girl like Debbie should have been sitting home and praying that the phone would ring, they were inundated with calls from shadchanim, each one desperate to strike the match between the millionaire’s daughter and the market’s freshest catch. Which explains why my phone also never stopped ringing. As a childhood friend and neighbor of hers, I had been handpicked as Debbie’s shidduch reference. Five, six times a day I’d have to stretch my creative muscles as far as they would go to sing Debbie’s praises, ignoring the nagging feeling that I was misleading some great boy and his family into marrying her and thinking he’d be marrying into a life of luxury, free to learn all day without the burden of financial pressures. Because something told me he wouldn’t be.
Despite the Stern’s fantastic wealth, they lived (relatively) simply, in an average sized, understated house, and drove practical cars that were well past the warranty window. Mr. Stern was a vocal believer in frugality—it wouldn’t have surprised me if he hid the family fortune under his mattress—and could often be heard at the shul Kiddush waxing poetic about the value of maintaining a sensible standard of living. Once, when I was at their house, their son, Moishe, rushed through the door with a bag of groceries, which he unloaded hastily onto the counter. “What’s this?” Mr. Stern asked, pointing to a container of brandname cream cheese. “Cream cheese?” Moishe replied. “How much was it?”Moishe started fingering one of his peiyos. “I’m not sure…$3.99, I think.” Mr. Stern slammed his hand onto the counter, making all of us jump. “Didn’t Mommy tell you to get the store brand? I heard her tell you it was on sale for $2.50!” “I-I’m sorry, Ta,” Moishe stammered, “I was in a rush, I didn’t notice…” “Take it back,” Mr. Stern said, handing him the cream cheese. “Now?” “Now,” said Mr. Stern, nodding sharply. “And bring me the receipt.” Why, I asked myself, would someone with all the money in the world get so upset over an extra dollar and 49 cents? I thought of how Debbie spent evenings babysitting for spending money, and how I’d seen her mother digging through the clearance racks at the discount store.
Everyone knew that Mr. Stern was slow to open his wallet, but I began to suspect that he kept his family on a much tighter leash than most people thought. When the time came for Debbie, their oldest, to start shidduchim, I began to think about the boys who would line up for a shot at living off the family fortune. It was possible that even if Mr. Stern did support Debbie and her prospective husband, their budget would be livable, at best. Most likely, she would have to work long and hard to supplement their income; they’d have to scrimp and sweat if they expected to get by. Then again, this was only speculation, a theory I’d come up with after witnessing a couple of incidents. And since I could never know for sure if I was right, I never said a word about it to anyone. When Mrs. Donner called me, she said she wanted to inquire about Debbie. But what she did, for the next hour, was give me a high-pitched earful about her prized Gershon: an only son, a masmid and a super yarei shamayim. He was, she said, the star of his yeshivah. Naturally, Mrs. Donner thought her son deserved the best of the best, and she was convinced that Debbie was it. It was also obvious that Mr. Stern’s wealth was clouding her judgement. And yet, I was obliged to tell Mrs. Donner about all of Debbie’s “wonderful” qualities, despite the feeling of doom I felt brewing in my chest.
By the time we hung up the phone, questions were pounding at my brain like a battering ram: Should I have told her about my suspicions? Was I putting a stumbling block in front of the blind? Then again, this Gershon would get a fair picture by meeting Debbie, and maybe the Sterns would be up-front about what they would or wouldn’t give. I just hoped that mother and son weren’t being lured into the shidduch by the money they might not see. Exactly two weeks later, the phone call came; Debbie Stern was engaged to Gershon Donner. I should have been excited for her, I suppose, but all I felt was dread. “I can’t believe I lucked out with such a fantastic guy!” Debbie confided. “He’s the lucky one,” I told her, while my head said, Poor, poor boy. You have signed on a deal that may not deliver. A few months later, when I danced with Debbie at her wedding, I prayed over and over that there be no rude awakenings once sheva brachos were over. The new Mr. and Mrs. Donner left to Eretz Yisrael where Gershon was to continue learning in kollel. I didn’t hear much from Debbie over the months they were gone, just an email here and there telling me about their apartment, which was “pretty small, but nice enough”and how she had been stealing catnaps at her secretary job because the late hours were tough to manage so late in her pregnancy.
Then, out of the blue, I ran into Debbie at the grocery here in town. She looked exhausted, trying to rock her wailing baby while wrestling groceries into her cart. “It’s so good to see you!” I exclaimed, cooing over the baby. “How long are you in town?” “Actually, we just moved back,” Debbie said. “Really? I thought Gershon was doing really well at the kollel. Didn’t you say that next zman he will be rosh of his chaburah?” Debbie’s eyes turned down at the floor. “Yeah, well, the cost of living there was a lot higher than we thought…it’s a lot more affordable closer to home.” Just then, Gershon materialized by her side. I almost did a double-take; he looked nothing like the baby-faced chasan I’d met a year before. Now, deep lines ran across his forehead, and his eyes were sad and faraway. “You ready?” he said to his wife. Debbie nodded. “Great to see you, Esty.” “Yeah,” I replied. “We’re happy to have you back. And you know what they say: ‘Meshaneh makom, meshaneh mazal.’(change of place change of luck) It will probably be easier here.” “Right,” she said, smiling sadly. As they walked away, Gershon three steps ahead of Debbie, my stomach churned with horror. I had been right about Mr. Stern, and I hadn’t said a word. Gershon had married Debbie for the promise of financial security, but his dream was shattered. And Debbie; she’d counted her blessings that such a boy had wanted her as his wife, but now her husband looked at her with obvious disappointment. There was nothing I could do now, I realized, except pray. Couples in worse straits than these had found their way back to each other. Maybe Gershon and Debbie would be able to pick up the shards of their broken dreams and patch together something like a happy life. But it certainly seemed challenging.