Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Tishrei 5766 - October 15, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

A Real Balabusta
A true story

by Miri Greengold

Dina checked the oven timer, peeked under the lid of the simmering soup, untied her apron and dashed out to the living room. Avrumi was waiting patiently, right where she'd left him, strapped into his stroller and ready for the quick trip to the neighborhood grocery store. Dina slung her purse onto the back of the stroller, pushed it out the door and was halfway up the hill to the grocer's before she stopped to catch her breath.

Whatever had to be done, Dina did it, though not always as efficiently as her mother would have. Take this cake, for example. She had done her shopping earlier in the week, but this morning, feeling an urge to be creative, she had thumbed through her cookbooks and found an interesting recipe for chocolate cake with coconut cream. It had just the right amount of ingredients to be tasty yet not so many as to make it a patchke, and chocolate, of course, was Yitzchok's favorite. So with the baby in tow, Dina dashed out to the grocer's to collect a few extra ingredients.

It's wonderful to have this grocery store so close to our new apartment, Dina thought as she pushed the stroller inside. Only after she had collected the things she needed and was standing in the checkout line did she notice three women standing outside, chatting together. Had they been standing there when she rushed in? Oh dear, Dina thought, I must have passed them right by. What must they think of me?

Nervously she counted her change and hurried out. Well, they must realize that I have no time to chat, she excused herself as she wheeled the stroller back down the hill. What with a baby and a houseful of work, I'm sure they'll understand that I can't fritter away my mornings standing in the sun.

The oven timer started beeping as she took Avrumi out of the stroller and put him down with some toys. That's how Dina's days went — one thing tumbling after another. Even though she was just keeping house for the three of them, the day never seemed long enough. There were always clothes to be washed, dishes to be scrubbed and food to be cooked. Dina never thought she was doing anything unusual by staying up till one in the morning, ironing shirts. What needed to be done simply had to get done and, amply endowed with the vitality of youth, she adroitly managed to accomplish everything that came her way.

She was so busy, in fact, that it was only late at night that she thought about her social life — or the lack of it. It was nearly two months since they had moved to this neighborhood. One woman had smiled at her in the grocery checkout line the first week she'd arrived, and another woman had introduced herself at the baby clinic. But after dark, when the neighborhood quieted down, Dina felt the twinges of loneliness. She had deliberately moved to this neighborhood because people were said to be sociable. Why hadn't anyone sent her a welcome cake, as they had in her last neighborhood? Couldn't the president of the N'shei pick up the phone to say hello? Dina knew she was being unreasonable, but the silent night unnerved her. Go to bed, she told herself firmly. In the morning all these depressing thoughts would be swallowed up by nonstop activity.

But soon the loneliness began to tag her by day as well. As she sat in the deserted playground with her son in the early mornings, or took Avrumi outside to catch the late-afternoon breezes, she wondered why she never saw anyone else around. Davka now, when I have a few minutes to sit and chat, no one's around, she thought.

Invariably, as she pushed the stroller homeward, she saw a few women standing by the grocery store, engrossed in conversation. Dina suddenly felt awkward and self-conscious. She could never bring herself to stand out on the street and just chat like that. She hurried down the hill, her thoughts already switching to what she would make for dinner.


"Did you see this?" Yitzchok asked, waving the neighborhood circular at Dina's back while she worked at the sink. "They're having a N'shei get-together this Shabbos with a speaker and refreshments. Why don't you go? I could babysit."

"Oh, I don't know, Yitzchok. Don't you have a shiur? And what about our Shabbos walk?" Dina hedged as she scrubbed her soup pot.

Yitzchok smiled. "Come on, Dina, you might like it. Didn't you tell me how you want to meet people? Here's your chance."

His words grated on her conscience. Dina knew he was right, but it was hard to admit it. Unless she broke out of her self- imposed isolation, she would never make new friends. She turned back to her soup pot and started scrubbing the pesky stain, with a vengeance. Shabbos was only a few days away.


Dina reached up to knock on the door, but then realized it was ajar. The bustle of lively voices greeted her as she stepped into a large living room. She looked around nervously. All the women seemed to know each other and animated conversations filled the air. Dina spied an empty chair and slipped into it, holding its sides for support as if it were a skiff lost at sea. From that vantage point, she inspected her surroundings.

A long table against the wall was beautifully set with cakes, fruits and drinks. Rows of chairs had been set up beside and in front of the table to accommodate all the participants. Soon most of the women had arrived.

"Welcome, everybody!" a pleasant voice sang out. "I'd like to welcome you to our N'shei Shabbos Get-Together. Take a drink and a piece of cake and find a seat, please. We'd like to get started."

Congenially, the women settled down. The first item on the program was a dvar Torah, delivered by a tall woman wearing a short, blonde sheitel. Dina leaned closer to listen.

"I always love hearing Chana Baila," a voice whispered behind her. "She's been teaching for years, you know."

The woman's insight into the parsha was indeed interesting. When the dvar Torah ended, Dina sat back contentedly, mulling over the message. Voices around her rose and blended into a happy stream.

"And now, ladies, we have a game!" the moderator called out. "Everyone put on your thinking caps, because we're going to find the biggest baalebusta in our neighborhood! There will be a prize for the winner at the end."

A titter swept the assemblage. Dina perked up her ears. She wasn't one for games, but the idea of a competition piqued her interest. Carefully she listened as the moderator explained how the game worked. She would ask a question, followed by three answers. Each answer had a numerical point value. Since it was Shabbos, the women would have to keep track of their score in their heads. The one with the most points was the winner.

"Here's the first question," the moderator said jovially. "When you have guests during the week, how many courses do you make? One — one point. Two — two points. Three — three points."

Chuckles erupted from around the room. Dina grinned as she thought how many courses she typically made for Yitzchok's chavrusas who dropped in during the week.

"Next question: How much attention do you pay to a dirty spot on the kitchen floor? Ignore it — one point. Wipe it with a wet towel — two points. Do a full sponja — three points."

Two women sitting in front of Dina turned around and grinned at the woman sitting beside her. The three seemed to be sharing a private joke. Dina glanced at her seatmate and recognized her as one of the women she usually saw standing outside the grocery store in the mornings. She had a pleasant, open face and looked to be about ten years older than Dina. "Your husband or son comes home with a torn shirt. What do you do? Buy him a new one — one point. Give it to a seamstress — two points. Mend it yourself — three points."

As the questions continued, Dina scored herself generously. She knew she invested all she had in running a home. But did she really go so far? Even if she was exaggerating her talents a bit, probably the other women were exaggerating theirs, too. It was just a game, after all.

"What's your idea of a Rosh Chodesh treat? Store-bought cookies — one point. Bakery pastries — two points. Homemade brownies with mini-marshmallows — three points."

Brownies, of course! Dina thought triumphantly, giving herself another three points. She wondered if other women thought the same, for they were all laughing and whispering to each other. One reached over and patted the shoulder of the woman sitting next to Dina. "Pessie, this game's for you!" she laughed. Dina saw her seatmate smile and nod.

"How often do you launder your living-room curtains? Once a year — one point. L'kovod Yom Tov — two points. Every month — three points."

A few women threw up their hands and declared themselves out of the running. "Pessie's the baalabusta, not me!" one called out good-naturedly. With each succeeding question, a few more women gave up. One leaned over Pessie's shoulder, urging her on. Slowly it dawned on Dina that she and Pessie were the only ones left in the game.

"And now for the last question," said the moderator. "At the end of the day, are there any dishes lying unwashed in your sink? Always — one point. Often — two points. Never — three points."

"Have you seen Pessie's sink lately?" laughed one woman. Dina glanced up and suddenly saw Pessie looking straight at her, a questioning expression in her eyes. Flustered, Dina lowered her eyes and tried to concentrate. She liked to wash dishes, to be sure, but weren't there times she had left things in the sink overnight to tend to Yitzchok and Avrumi? She chewed her lip, caught up in the spirit of competition. She thought of how sparkling clean her sink had looked when Shabbos came in. Three points, she told herself firmly.

"Okay, let's hear your totals," the moderator said. "Who has six points?" Several women raised their hands. "Ten? Fifteen?"

To her satisfaction, Dina noticed that most of the women in the room had already raised their hands. That left her and Pessie.

"Eighteen? Twenty?"

With a shrug, Pessie lifted her hand. A thrill ran through Dina. She was the winner!

"More than twenty?"

Dina raised her hand in triumph. With a smile, the moderator handed her the prize — a plastic Shabbos dish scrubber. To Dina, it felt like a bar of solid gold.

The game over, conversations resumed and women got up to help themselves to refreshments. Dina remained glued to her seat, stunned by her victory. Wait till her mother heard that she was the biggest baalabusta in the neighborhood!

"Congratulations," one woman said, trying to get Dina's attention. "You're new here, aren't you?"

"Um, yes, thanks," Dina mumbled awkwardly. The woman moved away and a rush of conversations filled the gap.

"Come on, Pessie, is it really true that you don't clear out your sink every night?" one woman exclaimed. "But I've been in your house! You're the biggest baalabusta I've ever seen!"

Dina turned around to see who was talking. The woman noticed her and added hurriedly, "Maybe we have an even bigger baalabusta in our neighborhood now." Dina blushed furiously. Embarrassed by the attention for something she wondered if she even deserved, she quickly left the apartment. Outside, the sun daubed its finishing touches on a waning afternoon. Dina briskly set out for home.

As she walked, the whole scene played itself out again before her eyes. This time, she viewed herself objectively, like a bystander, and realized that she had let the competition get the best of her. She remembered how the other women had smiled at and talked about Pessie, and she remembered how Pessie had looked at her. It wasn't just a glance; it was a penetrating, inquiring look.

What was she trying to tell me?

Dina groped for an answer. All the other women kept saying what a great baalabusta Pessie was, but when the points were added up, Dina had won. Won? Is that really true? If Pessie's such a great homemaker, why didn't she win?

She saw the two of them sitting side by side, the older, experienced homemaker and the young, struggling newcomer, and was shocked by the answer: Pessie must have lied, especially on that last question. But why? Dina fought to give the other woman the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she saw how much I wanted to win, and let me? Maybe it wasn't lying, but neighborliness. Maybe she wanted to make me feel good. I wonder if she's upset that I pass her by at the grocery store in the morning?

First Dina felt embarrassed, then warmed, by the silent welcome Pessie had extended her. She's probably a very nice person, she thought. Maybe I should try to get to know her better?


The next morning, Dina strapped Avrumi into the stroller and headed up the hill. At the top, sure enough, she saw two women standing in front of the store, chatting. Dina pulled up the stroller and parked it right next to Pessie.

"Good morning," she said, a bit awkwardly. Her heart was beating so loud she was sure it gave her away.

But Pessie didn't seem to notice. "Good morning," she replied kindly. "How nice of you to join us. Ilana and I were just talking about the Shabbos get-together."

"Yes, it really was fun," said Ilana. "And you won the game! That's a nice welcome to the neighborhood. What's your name?"

"Dina Mandelbaum. Nice to meet you."

"Ilana Goldberg. Nice to meet you, too. But you'll have to excuse me — I have to get going already. See you later, Pessie."

Dina and Pessie were left alone in front of the store. To Dina's relief, Pessie started up a conversation and smoothly steered it into one topic after another. Dina felt herself relaxing as they talked about their families, shiurim they enjoyed, and holiday plans. Dina even picked up a good recipe for grilled fish from the obviously experienced cook.

"But I'm not going to remember it," Dina admitted. "Could I call you when I get home to write it down?"

"Sure," Pessie agreed, jotting down her phone number. After half an hour, the two parted. The meeting had gone so well that Dina felt she had really made her first friend. An hour later, when she was sure Pessie had returned home, Dina picked up the phone.

"Hi, this is Dina again. Is it a good time?" she asked shyly.

"Sure, it's always good," Pessie replied. "Here, let me give you the recipe."

After she wrote it down, Dina couldn't help but ask the question that was uppermost on her mind. "I don't get it," she said. "Everyone says you're a real baalabusta, but you seem to have all the time in the world!"

Pessie laughed. "The secret is to do everything quickly," she confided. "Then you always have time for other things."

"Oh!" Dina cried in amazement. Then she drew in her breath and asked the next question that was pressing on her mind. "But this business of spending all morning at the grocery store . . . I can understand how you have time to do it, but I don't. Do you think, uh, maybe you'd like, um, to come over sometime for a cup of coffee?" There, she'd said it. She held her breath, waiting to see if Pessie would get the hint.

Again Pessie's gay laugh tinkled through the receiver. "Of course!" she agreed. "You bake those brownies with mini- marshmallows, and I'm on my way!"


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