Grounds for Divorce
A Fiction Story About A Real Myth
Zelig twirled his left payo as he watched a fly circle the wall sconce. His mind was going in circles too. How had he come to this? When had it all started? Years back, when he had re-embraced Yiddishkeit and mentschlichkeit he vowed to himself that one day he would write a book titled ‘Back From the Abyss’. Right now he’d change the title to ‘Back To the Abyss’.
Zelig never blamed anybody for his choices. His life was tough. He floundered and then he buckled. As simple as that. Luckily, his good heart never got tainted, even when his neshamah was frolicking in the mud. Zelig was always lauded for his goodness, from his earliest days in cheder, until he left it all behind.
Zelig’s gradual trek across the United States left a trail of drama and memories, from his surviving an Oklahoma twister, to a four-month prison stint in El Paso, Texas, to his shattered ankle during a surfing accident off the coast of California. Zelig’s foot was reconstructed with screws and bolts and there was enough metal in his ankle to set off every detector at LAX airport.
And then he returned. All the fun and adventure in the world didn’t pacify his yearning heart and with the passage of time and emerging maturity, Zelig chucked it all and returned to Brooklyn, starting anew. He attacked learning and tefilla with an energy he had previously not possessed and within a short while he was Zelig the masmid, Zelig the tsaddik, Zelig the lev tov. While he was left with a slight limp and his ankle teased him each time it was going to rain, he was no longer the messed-up kid who bolted away from all that was righteous and fair.
At 23 Zelig became engaged to Gitty. Charming, beautiful, articulate Gitty. Darling-in-public Gitty, witch-in-private Gitty.
Zelig continued to twirl his payos around his fingers as he silently replayed their Sheva Brochos. Gitty wouldn’t do a thing for him, not even lay out breakfast food by the time he came home from shachris because, as she so coyly and charmingly put it ‘a kallah in Sheva Brochos is a princess and I don’t do any work’. He was still taken by her charm and giggled as he set, served and cleaned away. When Sheva Brochos were over, Gitty crowned herself the ‘Shanah Rishona queen’.
Zelig was in kollel half a day and worked at an accounting firm the other half. He was bone tired when he got home in the evenings but didn’t allow that niggling feeling that told him something was amiss in this relationship to gain a voice in his head. He had heard that new marriages needed work and he would give it his all.
Zelig came home at the end of the day all of January. He shopped for dinner because his queen was on Shana Rishona Sabbatical. He learned to do the laundry. He learned to clean house. He smiled through it all. Marriage was indeed a lot of work.
Gitty’s smile was enchanting; Zelig was mesmerized. Her giggle held a tinkle and her eyes had a twinkle. Everything would be just fine; he was sure of it.
February was pretty much the same as January, but when March came around, so did tax season at Zelig’s place of work. He told Gitty ahead of time that he would have to spend longer hours at the office and he’d come home quite late at night. Gitty feigned a wounded puppy.
On his first late night home Zelig walked in at 9:45. Gitty was sprawled on the sofa playing Candy Crush on her phone. There was no sign of dinner nor order in their home. The breakfast dishes were still in the sink and her leaking Styrofoam coffee cup rested on the floor near her feet. Zelig drew in a deep breath and then greeted Gitty in his sweetest manner. The barrage that assaulted him for the missing dinner nearly knocked him off his feet.
It was his hazing. His initiation into married life with Gitty.
Zelig switched from twirling his payos to stroking his beard. These memories literally caused him to feel sick and he popped a Tums to relax his stomach.
Whatever semblance of normalcy still existed in their relationship all but stopped when Gitty learned she was pregnant. She quit her job, and the sofa, her phone and Candy Crush were all that mattered.
Zelig scheduled an appointment with his Rosh Yeshiva, who had also served as his mentor. He needed to know whether this was normal. There was hard work, and then there was hard work. This didn’t seem right to him.
Rav Tessler adored Zelig. Such middos and lev tov were hard to come by, especially within the same person. Zelig was a gift to humanity and his wife was one lucky woman. But when Zelig spilled the beans and confided in Rav Tessler about his marital woes, the Rosh Yeshiva paid close attention and then whispered to Zelig, “Your wife is suffering from SRS.” Zelig nearly jumped out of his chair. “What’s that?” And ever so slowly and with a slight twitch of the lip Rav Tessler said, “It stands for Shanah Rishona Syndrome. Some newlywed veiblech are just out of whack. It takes them some time to acclimate properly to marriage and all their responsibilities both as wives and homemakers. Give it a chance and don’t expect any miracles until after she gives birth, B’shah tovah.”
Zelig went home with a spring in his step and a load off his chest. So this wasn’t abnormal, after all. Gitty was fine, like hundreds and thousands before her. This was going to work indeed!
Baby Chaim was born after an uneventful pregnancy, marked primarily by Candy Crush wins and losses. And then the post-partum recovery period was over, Shana Rishona was over, but Zelig’s life was miserable. He endured harrowing outbursts, spiteful lack of balabusta input, and an abundance of disrespect from Gitty. She stepped all over him and made sure to grind him into the ground with her razor tongue and piercing eyes. Those eyes, oh those eyes! Those eyes that were so deep and beautiful and had twinkled like amethysts. They were now filled with anger and hatred. Zelig stood before the mirror and spoke to himself: ‘Listen up, Zelig! Are you doing everything within your power to be a good husband? Are you doing everything within your power to make Gitty happy? Are you doing everything within your power to ask Hashem for siyata dishmaya in your marriage?’ Zelig was never the crying type, in spite of all the difficulties he had already endured in his young life, but this time the tears threatened to fall as he answered ‘Yes’ to each of his questions and to his reflection in the mirror.
Gitty couldn’t connect with Baby Chaim. She blamed it on hormones. Zelig fed, bathed, changed and burped the baby. He sang lullabyes and rocked the cradle as Gitty slept soundly and awaited her coffee in bed every morning. Zelig was exhausted.
When Chaim was due for his first set of immunizations Gitty ‘would’ve fainted flat out’ so Zelig took him to the pediatrician. When Chaim screamed through the night with his first ear infection Gitty couldn’t watch his pain. Zelig had to move out to the living room with Chaim so that Gitty wouldn’t suffer from Chaim’s suffering.
Zelig continued to keep house and do childcare. Gitty’s life was full of excuses why she was an absentee parent and a non-too-loving spouse. She gravitated from hormones, to being overwhelmed to bouts of anger, all the while raking up more points on Candy Crush.
Just when Zelig felt he’d lose his marbles Chaim thankfully started playgroup, but Gitty found she was expecting once again. And one noontime, when Zelig came home from kollel to grab a bite before heading to his accounting job, he took to tidying up, as usual. Gitty was nowhere around and the place was flying. Between bites Zelig went from room to room and straightened up. Gitty’s bed was a mess; just the way she had tossed her cover and climbed out of bed in the morning, that is exactly the way she left it. Zelig straightened the blanket and fluffed her pillows, and that’s when he saw it. A folded sheet of paper between her two pillows. Was it possibly a letter to him? He unfolded it and read the following: I have no idea why I am where I am. This life is not for me. I feel no connection to Chaim and I am gradually losing all that I ever (thought) felt for Zelig. I feel choked. I need space. I need to focus on me. What have I gotten myself into…and now there’s another baby on the way. Hashem, please free me.
Zelig asked for the afternoon off at the accounting firm at which he was employed and immediately called Rav Tessler. He begged for an urgent appointment and his Rosh Yeshiva obliged, sensing the urgency.
Rav Tessler recognized the emotional decline in Zelig as soon as the latter walked into his study. Zelig’s shoulders were slumped and his eyes looked dismal.
“Zelig, what has happened to you? Where is my shining star talmud?”
Zelig grunted sarcastically and said, “Rav Tessler, your shining star is quickly losing its luster. My life is in shambles and just when I thought it couldn’t get much worse, I discovered something harrowing under my wife’s pillow.”
Rav Tessler listened intently and looked concerned. But he never lost his composure. He looked Zelig square in the eye, put his hand on Zelig’s arm and said, “Zelig, I’m sorry you are suffering so and the situation has clearly deteriorated to a point where it needs professional input, but try to stretch it until after the baby gets born im yirtzeh Hashem. Pregnancy is not the right time to attack such issues. Continue doing what you’ve been doing until now; try to keep the status quo and let’s revisit this after the birth, if there won’t be any improvement. I would like to believe that a lot of this is hormone-related, even though, from what you tell me, the situation hasn’t been much better after your first child was born and the post-partum period had elapsed. Shtark zeech, Zelig, and know that you can count on me; I won’t let you down, B’ezras Hashem.”
Baby Hendy was born after a difficult birth and she was diagnosed with Down syndrome on the delivery table.
Zelig wanted to climb into a hole, close his eyes and sleep until Moshiach arrives. How much worse could life get? Quite a bit worse, he found out very soon, when the baby’s heart defect required immediate, life-saving surgery. Miraculously, Gitty rose to the challenge and turned into the perfect, doting mom. She sat at Hendy’s bedside and sang softly to her, gently stroking Hendy’s tiny hand which had tubes and bandages covering most of it. Zelig ran himself ragged taking Chaim to and from the babysitter, visiting Gitty and Hendy in the hospital, preparing meals, doing laundry and trying to maintain his learning seder and work commitment. He barely had time to process his anguish over Hendy’s diagnosis. He was also in total shock at Gitty’s reaction. She embraced Hendy’s diagnosis with equanimity and suddenly revealed a side of herself that Zelig had never seen in their marriage, and definitely not in Gitty’s parenting rapport with Chaim.
Baby Hendy came home at six weeks of age, frail and pale, and on a strict regimen of medications. A visiting nurse came to their home every day for the first 2 weeks to check Hendy’s vital signs and to make sure her feeds were going well. Gitty was up at the crack of dawn and held down the fort – for Hendy. Zelig needed to fend for himself completely and Chaim’s presence meant little to Gitty. Baby Hendy had totally bowled over Gitty. She held and cooed to and rocked the baby, pressing the little pink bundle close to her heart. Gitty jumped up countless times during the night at the slightest whimper emanating from the bassinet.
When Hendy was five months old she started early intervention therapy to address her delays relating to Down syndrome.
At the same time Zelig and Gitty started marriage counseling to address their marital woes.
Rav Tessler had given Zelig the name of a reputable, frum marriage counselor and he hoped his prize student would one day shine again.
Dr. Lipsker welcomed Zelig and Gitty into his office. He asked that they both turn their phones off and put them away. Zelig immediately obliged, while Gitty refused. No explanation. Blunt refusal. Dr. Lipsker reiterated his request and made it clear that it was in the interest of both clients that they have absolutely no interruptions. Zelig knew that they left both children under the best of care at home, so there was no under-lying concern to explain Gitty’s obnoxiousness. The session didn’t go too well. Zelig was cautious in his words and Gitty chose to sulk most of the time. Dr. Lipsker mandated that they have individual sessions in the future.
Hendy started to roll over, which was cause for big celebration. Gitty had her camera out and ready and was constantly filming. She called it ‘science in the making’. The therapists were highly impressed with Gitty’s parenting skills and her love and devotion to Hendy. It was clear that Hendy was the apple of Gitty’s eye and she was making great strides developmentally.
During his second private session with Zelig, after having met privately with Gitty, Dr. Lipsker asked rather bluntly, “Mr. Schiff, can you name one positive thing in your marriage?” Zelig squirmed uncomfortably, thought for a moment, then smiled broadly and said, “Yes, my baby Hendy, who has Down syndrome. She brings out the best in my wife. She makes my wife happy, warm, doting, devoted, and motherly.”
Dr. Lipsker drew a deep breath and looked at Zelig sadly. “Mr. Schiff, your wife is a very sick woman. She has a severe personality disorder which is dominated by narcissism, and generously sprinkled with poor middos. Her enthusiasm and seeming devotion for the baby is just another aspect of her narcissism. She has made the baby into a project in order to further her agenda of the ‘me’ factor. It’s all about her devotion, her expertise in the eyes of the therapists, which is something that wasn’t relevant when Chaim was a baby. Years of therapy might crack a dent in her steel demeanor, but it’s very iffy – it might just not happen. I’m sorry, Mr. Schiff for all your pain and suffering. You are a wonderful person. You deserve the best.”
Zelig stared directly into Dr. Lipsker’s smoky grey eyes and asked very, very slowly, “Doctor Lipsker, are you telling me to divorce my wife?”
Dr. Lipsker adjusted his glasses as he stared at Zelig. He then spoke. “I don’t make recommendations for my clients. I just give you the facts, diagnoses and all, and let you run with the decision. Where you want to take this is ultimately your choice, Mr. Schiff.”
Zelig sat in his car for a long time. He stared straight ahead, trying to process it all. In the interim he counted 17 birds that flew overhead, 13 traffic light changes and 4 cats that ran across the road. None of this was helping him come to any rational decision. He would talk to Rav Tessler one more time.
The Rosh Yeshiva was disbelieving after talking to Zelig for a while. “You are telling me that your baby with Down syndrome is a good thing in your marriage and in your life?” Zelig smiled gently and nodded vigorously. “Yes, Rav Tessler. It is the only happening that has brought out some positive traits in my wife. The baby makes my wife happy; the baby makes her kind; the baby makes her giving. Other than that, it’s a sorry state of affairs”, and Zelig went into painful detail of Gitty’s terrible neglect and apathy toward Chaim and himself. The Rosh Yeshiva was clearly in shock. He sprang out of his chair and raised his voice, “I need to hear this again because it’s so unbelievable! The best and only good thing in your marriage is the birth of your baby with Down syndrome?!? Is that right?” Zelig nodded, this time silently, as tears threatened to spill out of his eyes.
The Rosh Yeshiva noticed. He embraced Zelig. He then pushed Zelig forward, facing him at arm’s length and said softly, “Zelig, you know what you have to do.”
Zelig went home and over tea he told Gitty that he was going to divorce her. Gitty remained stoic and by the end of the week they were no longer a married couple.
The women of the ‘Yenta Club’ from the neighboring apartment building were standing around, waiting for their children’s busses on Monday morning. Chava, from apartment 3A with her bandana down to her eyebrows, sipping her first coffee of the morning, perked up her ears as she tried to keep her stockings from falling down to her toes. Rifky, from 2C wore a turban a tad too big on her and had her cell phone glued to one ear, held in place by her turban. She was slurping a latte’ as her little one was yanking at her skirt. Gelly, from the fourth floor, always fashion conscious, always gossip hungry, was adjusting the chenille ‘mushroom’ on her head, as she quickly whipped out a lipstick and tiny hand mirror. Hudy, perpetually late, blew out the door and panted and shouted simultaneously, “Did you ladies hear the latest?” Gelly was the first to ask, “Hear what? Hurry up – the busses will be arriving momentarily. What’s the latest?” Rifky quickly ended her phone call, Chaya came closer and Hudy announced in a loud whisper, “The Schiffs, Zelig and Gitty, from the next house, divorced!”
There was stunned silence, punctuated by knowing nods. Gelly spoke first. “I’m shocked, but I’m really not. Everybody knows that children with Down syndrome break up marriages. It was bound to happen to them.” Chaya nodded maturely – “What a crying shame. Gitty always seemed to have everything together. She was so sweet and so nicely dressed. They were such an ideal couple. What a shame. Maybe they should have given the baby up; that could have saved their marriage.” Rifky nodded sagely – “Yes, I also know for a fact that children with Down syndrome break up the best of marriages. May Hashem spare us all.”
As the busses all rumbled away, the Yenta Club dispersed.