Whenever I get together with my friends from Rebbetzin Kaplan’s Bais Yaakov Seminary, we inevitably reminisce about old times and the many challenges we faced growing up. We seldom speak to our own children about these things; we’re sure they wouldn’t understand. Life was so different then. Whenever we went shopping, we had to buy two of the same dress in order to have enough fabric to lengthen the sleeves and hemline and fix the neckline. Today, heimishe stores have endless selections of off-the-rack clothing that is modest enough even for the most exacting. Our mothers had to kasher all the meat and chicken and schlep out to the farms on the outskirts of Brooklyn or up to the Catskills to watch the cows being milked so we could have chalav Yisrael. Can our children really fathom what it was like to live in a time when there were no yeshivos or Bais Yaakovs and public school was mandatory until age 16? Not to mention having to attend daily assemblies that opened with a reading from the New Testament. We were even required to join in the singing of Xmas carols, in classrooms decorated in the holiday colors of red and green.
As a mother, I should be overjoyed that my children are spared those challenges. But I do find myself feeling sorry for them, convinced that they’re missing out on something very important—the joy that comes from overcoming adversity. We lacked many things, but in exchange we had the deep satisfaction of knowing we were the builders of a Jewish world in a spiritual desert. The truth is that our children are really great kids, serious students involved in chesed projects, helping the sick, the elderly and those with special needs. So if everything’s good, what am I complaining about? Why am I obsessed with the ease of being religious today? On a recent trip to America for a family simchah, I was invited to speak to a group of 18-year-old seminary girls. Standing in front of the class I said, “You live in a world in which all the difficulties of living a Torahdike life are gone. Whereas putting kosher food on the table once took long hours and hard work, today you can buy everything from gefilte fish to compote—your entire Shabbos—without lifting a finger. Your clothing comes from factories that cater to the religious consumer.
Enough nosh—which was unknown to earlier generations—is available under every hashgachah to keep half of Brooklyn on a diet for the rest of their lives. “My question to you is this: Where in your own life can you find the element of mesiras nefesh for a mitzvah that Yidden have always had throughout the generations?” While I was speaking, the students sat at attention and looked straight at me with interest. But after I finished, they all seemed to have something on their desks requiring their attention. Some fiddled around with their pens, others appeared to be searching for an answer. There wasn’t a sound in the room. Total silence. After a couple of minutes, one girl raised her hand and stood up, and to my surprise she made the following impassioned speech. “I think you underestimate this generation,” she said almost apologetically. “Just because our nisyonos don’t make headlines doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” The girls all turned toward her, shocked at the sharpness of her tone. But once she had gotten started, she didn’t hold anything back. “A while back my best friend was getting married, and I wanted to look really spectacular at her wedding.
For weeks I went shopping, searching for a dress, and not just any dress but the dress, something really beautiful. This wedding was a very special occasion and it was important to me to look my best. “I began with department stores but didn’t find anything. Then I graduated to boutiques and shops and ultimately found myself in the kind of exclusive, high-fashion emporium I would never set foot in under normal circumstances, but this was an exception. The wedding was just a week away and I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. “The saleswoman was very attentive and brought out one dress at a time— nice, but nothing truly exceptional. After I vetoed everything she showed me, she said, ‘Well, actually, there’s another dress. It’s a little more expensive, but it’s very beautiful.’ “This time when she came out, she was holding the most exquisite powderblue chiffon creation I had ever seen. ‘It’s the color of your eyes,’ the saleslady said in a whisper. ‘My heart tells me that this is the dress of your dreams.’ “I went into the dressing room trembling with excitement. When I looked in the mirror, I almost wept with joy. This was it. The dress was everything I had ever wanted.
The saleslady was right. It was the dress of my dreams. “‘It looks stunning on you!’ she exclaimed, delighted that she had finally found what I was looking for. ‘You’ll be a knockout at the wedding!’ She opened the three-way mirror. ‘Take a look at yourself from every angle. The dress is perfect on you.’ “I hardly recognized myself. I was stunning. It was really quite a shock. I stepped back from the mirror and studied myself from a distance, turning around and around, pleased by what I saw. “‘Take your time, dear,’ the saleslady was saying. ‘You’ll be the most beautiful girl there—well, other than the bride! Just call me when you’re ready.’ “I kept staring at myself in the mirror, unable to believe that it was really me. I looked like an actress. I looked like a model. My mother always tells me that I’m pretty, but this time I could see it for myself. I stood there looking at my reflection until I suddenly realized that the girl in the mirror wasn’t really me.
And what hit me even harder was that the girl in the mirror was someone I didn’t want to be. “After a long last look, I took off the dress and changed back into my skirt and blouse. Then I picked up the dress, walked out of the dressing room and found the saleslady. “She was all smiles as she took it from me and said, ‘Come along with me to the cashier. We’ll pack it in extra tissue paper so it doesn’t crease. Just make sure you hang it up as soon as you get home.’ “‘I’m not taking it,’ I managed to whisper. ‘I’m really sorry I took so much of your time, but I’ve decided against it.’ Blocking out her pleas of ‘Why not? What’s the problem?,’ I turned around and ran out as fast as I could. “And do you really want to know why?” the girl continued. By that time the class was hanging on her every word. “Because it was too much, too beautiful, too perfect.” There was total silence in the room.
Many of the girls looked puzzled. “Let me explain,” she continued. “When I looked in the mirror, I suddenly remembered reading that whenever the Kloizenberger’s daughter asked her father for money to go clothes shopping, he would tell her, ‘Gei gezinterheit and buy yourself something nice…but not too nice.’ I thought about his words; what exactly did he mean? “Seeing how I looked in that dress,I suddenly knew without a doubt that it was ‘too nice.’ I didn’t want to be a ‘knockout,’ the one who caught everyone’s eye. I understood what the Rebbe meant.” Squaring her shoulders, she looked at me and said with conviction, “You asked us where our nisyonos are, where the element of mesiras nefesh is in our own lives today. My answer to you is that although our nisyonos aren’t as difficult as they were in previous generations, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” At that moment the bell rang. A teacher was waiting at the door for me to leave so she could come in and give her lesson. Saved by the bell, I thought to myself. I’d come to give a lesson but I had received a lesson instead.