Note: This piece is part of Hevria’s Longform Week. Each one of our writers has committed to writing pieces over 4,000 words. For context, that is about 16 pages in a book. Enjoy!
We were broke.
A month earlier, we had had a baby.
I believed what they said, that God gives a purse to a family when they have a child. That God provides material benefits to match the spiritually unparalleled power of bringing a child into the world.
“But… you don’t have a job! You don’t have experience! What are you going to do?” my mom asked me frantically over the phone. She didn’t expect this, didn’t expect any of it. Her son living in Israel, married for only a year, orthodox for two years, with a degree from Arizona State.
The poor woman, and my poor father. My dad had almost had the opposite journey. He had gotten married after getting his graduate degree from the Technion, Israel’s most prestigious engineering university (and thus its most prestigious university period). Shortly after, he and my mom moved to America so he could get his PhD from Stanford. His first job after receiving his degree was as a professor at Yale.
My mother, she sometimes wondered aloud, at the more frustrating times, how I was so different from them. She had always followed the rules, always respected her parents. She had seen the value in education, in her upbringing. She had married a man who shared all these things. She was planning to build a family with the same values.
She tells me that I was a difficult birth. That it took a long time for me to be born, like it was almost as if I was trying to make it hard on her. Not much changed after that.
I wasn’t interested in school, but in a way that was agressive, almost like I resented it all. I felt like they were trying to brainwash me, control me, push me into a cube. The teachers I loved were the ones that said things like, “Be yourself” and actually meant it.
But for the rest, I would “rebel” by avoiding homework, by frustrating them, by failing them.
My mother wondered if maybe I had a learning disability, or just needed help learning good study habits. So she took me to Sylvan Learning Center, a tutoring factory that supposedly helped with this stuff.
They gave me a standardized test, and I… did well. Enough that they explained to her that I didn’t really need their help. That I wasn’t having trouble learning. I was having trouble following the rules.
It never really stopped after that, I guess.
Back To Israel, 2011
“It’s going to be okay, Mom. I promise.”
“But how can you be sure? You hardly have any experience, Elad. You just lost your job. You have a baby. What are you going to do?”
“God will provide,” I said.
And I meant it.
And so I started looking for a job. One of Israel’s most prominent newspapers hired me for an editing position, and when I arrived they said they had made a mistake and hired someone else too and could I please leave. This was Israel, so… it made a weird sort of sense.
I kept looking. My daughter kept growing. The purse we had seemed to be shrinking. I wondered where that new one was.
A friend mentioned off-handedly to me that he could get me a job at the bakery he worked at. They had some job openings for the people who make the dough. It paid okay, for a dough-making job.
I tried to imagine it. Tried to envision what it would look like to work at a bakery all day just doing the same thing, the same thing, the same thing.
One time, during my summer off from college, I had tried to get a job as a house painter. They liked college students because they could pay them crappy pay that to us was huge. They interviewed me and thought I’d be great, but they wanted me to come in and try it out first.
“It’s not for everyone,” the man told me.
I nodded, but I was sure that this pay would be worth it. I came the next day to a work project, a bunch of other guys my age all over the house. One on a ladder close to the top of the house, another crouching down on the ground. Everyone was silent, they were all concentrating on their work.
The guy who had interviewed me was there and he introduced me to everyone. They were super nice, and had this calm sort of serenity about them. They all said hello and if their hands weren’t super dirty or if they weren’t on ladders high above, they shook my hand.
The man then took me to a part of the house that needed painting, the railing on the steps leading to it. He showed me how to paint it. It was very simple, and I figured it out quickly. He smiled and said, “Okay, you’ve got five hours. Tell me how you’re feeling when you’re done.”
And so I stood there painting. At first I thought this would be an incredible, meditative experience. What an opportunity, to just sit there without any distractions at all and paint. No stimulation. Just… nothing…
And even thinking those thoughts, I think I knew it would never happen. I lasted about an hour, staring mind-numbingly at the railing and painting it, wondering why I ever thought this would be something I would enjoy.
I walked over to the boss, and I said, “Thank you, but I guess it’s not for me.”
He smiled and nodded. I imagine this happened quite a bit, although I wondered where I ranked in terms of how quickly people gave up. I’d wager high on the list.
I walked away, and knew that from then on, I could only do a job where I was stimulated. It was a big part of the reason school always seemed to suck my soul out. I wasn’t made to sit still and follow orders. I was every member of the Greatest Generation’s worst nightmare: a millennial made to fight systems and think he deserved to be entertained by his work.
Back To Israel, 2011
I couldn’t take the job, I knew it. It wasn’t so much that I was embarrassed by it or anything. Lots of people in Israel that were highly educated did manual labor to make ends meet. It was part of the beauty of living there. Just existing in the land was its own holy work, and we were all its lucky employees.
But making dough all day just made me want to fall asleep even hearing about it. So I thanked my friend, and I kept looking for a job. God would provide. I was promised a purse.
My poor parents sent us some money to keep us afloat, but that couldn’t continue. We got so desperate that we applied to become citizens of Israel just so we could get the money that comes with it, even though we were sure that we’d be moving back to America at some point.
But still. It wasn’t enough.
It was the first time I ever really understood that I was responsible for others. That I didn’t just exist for myself. I saw this baby, this little nothing-sized girl, begging for food from her mother in our little home, and I felt ashamed that she was partly being sustained by my parents, by my country, by everyone but me.
I became desperate, and started applying to every job I could find, I didn’t care what kind as long as it seemed kind of interesting, as long as it seemed like it might stimulate me in some way.
I started to find job boards that it seemed were hardly used, sites just for people who had recently moved to Israel, and I applied to everything I could find.
I started applying to things outside of Jerusalem, even though I didn’t have a car. When I saw a job that didn’t list a location, I decided to gamble and hope that it would be in or near Jerusalem.
And for weeks, still nothing. Not one email. Not one phone call.
Where was God? How could they have been wrong, all my yeshiva teachers? This was why I came here! This was why we sold all our things to come here! Belief, belief that there was more to the world than ourselves, that there was a deeper truth to attach to.
We sold all our things, we brought life into the world. And God’s promise was nowhere to be seen.
Our First Call, 2009
“I just… before we start… I need to tell you something…”
It was our first call, the first call before we would try dating. It was the first and only person I would ever date in the religious style of dating only for marriage, of not touching at all before our wedding, of having a rabbi discuss things with us separately as we moved forward.
I was nervous. I had spent the night before freaking out. She had asked me out. The same woman I had asked out a year ago, and who had turned me down, now she asked me out when I had made a decision with my teacher in yeshiva that I should wait before dating, that I wasn’t ready at all.
That night, I called my rabbi from college, the one who had brought me to Israel in the first place, the one who would be our go-between when all this began. I told him my concerns, I told him that it made no sense, it made no sense, it made no sense. He said he thought it made sense. We talked about why, we talked about everything, and finally my heart raced slightly slower and I agreed to at least speak with her before dating, to at least consider it.
“Okay,” she said calmly after I stammered my intro to her, “What is it?”
“I’m going to be poor.”
“Yes… I, just… look, I want to be a writer, and it’s the only thing I’ve ever actually known that I’ve wanted. And I guess I just want you to know that if you marry me, if this works out, then we’re going to be poor for the rest of our lives. Probably.”
“Oh, I don’t care about that,” she said as naturally as if I had told her that vanilla ice cream wasn’t really my thing.
I took a pause. I was confused. This thing, this thing that for some reason was the first thing I wanted to address (probably because it came from a deeper insecurity that I was not an adult, that I couldn’t manage my own life, let alone someone else’s), which must have inhabited some deeply insecure part of me, was suddenly… not an issue.
“Really?” I finally managed to spit out.
“I mean, of course not. I care about who you are. I care about what kind of world we’d make, what kind of children we’d bring into the world. Money just… isn’t as much of a priority for me. And I believe, I really believe, that God wants us to live the lives we are meant to live, and that he’ll provide when we need it.”
That’s when I knew I could date her. All the anxiety left me. All the worries from the night before escaped. I didn’t know at the time that we would get married, but I knew that I was speaking to someone very special.
About 8 months later, we were married.
A Date In Israel, 2010
“It’s just so wonderful here,” she said.
We were outside, at a table outside our favorite ice cream place in the center of Jerusalem. It was night time on a Thursday, basically the equivalent of American Friday night. The people bustled all around us, the city was ablaze with the energy of the young residents, the tourists, the American yeshiva students. Nearby, a woman played a harp that could be heard all around.
We had decided to come to visit Israel, to study a bit of Torah, 6 months after our wedding. We both desperately felt like we needed that injection of belief shot into our veins before we got back into our daily lives. So we had saved some of our wedding money, bought two tickets, got an awesome place, and spent the summer studying Torah at the yeshiva I had studied in right before we got married. We had no obligations, we had no responsibilities. We had the money we needed to enjoy it. I walked into yeshiva every morning like I was in Heaven. Maybe I was.
“You’re so right, you’re so right,” I said, glorying in the bustle, in the harp, in the weather, in the life here.
We sat quietly together both enjoying it all, taking it all in.
She broke the silence quietly, timidly.
“I just… I can’t imagine going back to Chicago. Going back to our lives there.”
It was like she released something in me: “Ugh, you’re so right, you’re so right. How could we? How could we?”
The community was so warm in Chicago, so nice. But we didn’t belong. It was old people, it was established people, it was people who had found their box of Judaism and weren’t interested in much else.
Meanwhile, around us, Jews of every color, of every type, bustled around. Like a Jewish United Nations. Jews with knitted kippahs, with Rasta hats, with slicked, oiled hair and no kippahs, with black hats and coats. Jewish women with flowing long skirts, with jean skirts, with pants, with short shorts, with wigs and tiechels and every other head covering in existence, with no head coverings.
In Chicago, at our shuls, there was one type of Jew. On Purim, I came all dressed up, with shorts pulled over sweatpants and a tie wrapped around my head. Every single other person was dressed in the tradition of Chabad on Purim: that is, not differently at all.
I didn’t judge them. But I didn’t belong. We didn’t belong.
“So…” I said quietly.
“Do you think…”
She looked at me with this hope in her eyes, with excitement, with joy. She knew what I was going to say because she was the one who actually had thought of it first, had initiated it, but just by saying a few words, she was able to get me to fall into it right away.
“… we should move here?”
“Yes,” she said instantly.
“For… just for a test. Right? To see how we like it. To just… to learn more… to grow more…”
“Yes, yes. We’re not ready yet, right? We don’t know enough, we have so much more to learn.”
“Yes… and… we could find a way to make it work. We wouldn’t need all our wedding stuff. We would just need to find an affordable place. I could speak to Rabbi Sh – ”
“Yes, please! We can do it, I really believe we can do it.”
“We won’t be able to live like we’ve been living. It won’t be as easy.”
“I know. I know. Of course. But God will provide.”
It was a month before the move. We had sold most of our things. My car was gone. Her car was gone. Our house was half-empty. The junk removers would be coming in a few weeks to remove the couches we couldn’t sell. The beautiful silverware we had received was returned. We would be going to Israel with the clothes on our backs and in our bags and some money.
We had found a furnished apartment, the yeshiva had agreed to let us come for free, and they were even launching a teaching program that would pay after the year was over. Everything seemed like it was falling into place.
But we still didn’t have enough money. We had calculated the cost of a year in Israel, spent only studying, and it just didn’t seem like it was going to happen.
So we had an idea: throw a gallery showing displaying all my wife’s artwork. Maybe it would help. Who knew. But we had to try everything. We couldn’t be broke during this time if we wanted to devote ourselves to Torah study. And we thought, maybe this was a way that God could provide.
I had trouble imagining what would really happen, though. How many people are actually willing to pay for art? At one gallery? But… we were running out of time and options.
So we found a space in Chicago, and began organizing a last-minute popup art gallery. We got the word out to all our friends, all our parent’s friends, all the people in our network. We billed it as a fundraiser and art gallery showing in one. And we prayed to God to provide.
Through it all, she wasn’t worried at all. She was calm. I was starting to understand that the words she had told me during our call on our first date were true: she really believed that it was up to God, that if we did what was right it would fall into place. I suppose I wanted to believe it. But I was new to this believing thing, and I was just hoping for the best.
That day, we rented a van (another cost) and brought all the art over to the gallery. We hung it together, talking more about our trip than about the event. As much as we were enjoying all this energy, we couldn’t wait to go back to the Jewish UN, back to Jerusalem with its colors and its harps and its Torah.
When the time came, some friends trickled in. We had gone to the same high school, and so we shared a lot of the same friends. They looked around, but it was clear they probably wouldn’t buy much. Prints, maybe. But they were so positive, so wonderful, so supportive.
Soon our parents arrived. Then others, family friends. Some people we didn’t recognize.
A woman came over to my wife. She asked about a large painting in the corner. We were selling everything as cheap as we could imagine art should be, and I suppose it helped because she instantly bought it.
One of her parent’s friends came over and bought another.
Prints started selling at a hot rate.
Then more and more of the originals were sold. And as we looked around, we realized that we had already sold more than half of them.
And as the people trickled out and we danced with our friends around the room, it became clear that we had sold almost all the originals. There was no doubt we would have money for the year now. We were set to go.
God had provided.
Back To Israel, 2011
While in Israel, I had kept up my connection with my therapist from Arizona. Every week, we’d speak together on Skype, just as we had back in college. He was my lifeline, the man who had guided me after I had been released from a mental institution for having a manic episode. He had helped me quit pot, helped me stop thinking I was bound to always be a failure, helped me build up a life I could start to be proud of after one that always seemed disrupted by an unseen force (which the hospital had taught me was bipolar disorder).
We were talking about how God wasn’t providing.
“I just… I don’t know what to do,” I said, “No one has gotten back to me. Still. It’s been months. We’re almost out of money. We have to pay rent. We have a baby. What do we do?”
“Well…” he began, “What are your priorities here?”
“What matters the most to you?”
“My family. Providing for my family.”
And it hit me that this was the first time I had ever uttered such words. For some reason, some part of me had still been living in a world in which my dreams and aspirations mattered more than anything, in which I was still battling teachers to live the life I wanted instead of the ones they were imposing on me. I knew I was supposed to provide for my family, but I figured it would always be an outgrowth of that nature, of me living my life the way I wanted to, the way I demanded I live it. To myself, to others, to the world. To God.
“It matters more than anything else, you mean?”
“Yes, yes… I would give anything to change where we are now. I… think I’m supposed to be a man. A provider. I guess I’m just starting to understand that for the first time.”
This is how it would happen so often during our meetings, this weird sort of synchronicity where he would ask me a question that would lead me to an answer that took his question in a direction neither one of us expected, in which suddenly I was practically leading the session myself.
“Okay, so let’s start from there. If the most important thing in your life is providing for your family, then what can you do? If you are willing to truly sacrifice to make it happen, then what can you think of that you may have ignored in the past?”
And it hit me.
The bakery job. Making dough. Every day. All day.
I imagined it. Imagined the version of myself that could not handle sitting still for more than an hour painting a damn railing. Imagined that this was the opposite of the life I had thought I would be leading now. I had come to Israel to escape drudgery and a world I considered boring and uniform. And now, with the teaching program that had been planned at my yeshiva cancelled, with absolutely no other job prospects at all, with the most important thing in my life being my family, I had to make a decision. I had to be different. I had to transform. I had to realize that I was not always first, that my desires, the kind of job I wanted, the kind of life I wanted, was no longer what mattered. Not what mattered most, at least.
God had provided. I just hadn’t been willing to take his offer.
I looked at my therapist’s pixelated face. I sighed.
“I need to take the bakery job. I have to.”
“I’m proud of you, Elad.”
He was smiling, practically beaming through the screen. I never really knew whether he orchestrated these things, whether he was trying to take me to a specific destination or if it really did work out so well through our dialogue.
I did know one thing. Someone had orchestrated it. And the Someone was beyond all someones. I needed to learn something, I needed to understand something.
That I was not the center of the universe. That being a father, being a husband, means sacrifice, means sublimating our desires for the true priorities in life. That dreams are nice, but that the people we are responsible to matter more.
The next day, I woke up determined to speak to my friend about the bakery job. If I could, I would start that day. Whatever it took. I steeled myself, imagining the dreariness of it all, the thoughts of wanting to escape because my energy would overtake me, and I reminded myself why that didn’t matter as much as my emotions were telling me it did.
Before giving him a call, I walked over to my computer to check the internet. My usual energy was too unfocused to begin a day productively, a reality that to this day has not changed.
I opened my laptop, and as usual, I checked Facebook and my email first.
Nothing was new on Facebook. But my email had an unfamiliar name in it. An Israeli name. The subject line said, “Your application”.
I opened it, not having any idea what it could be about.
It was an email from a job I had applied to. From one of the places on the random job boards, the ones that I had dug deeply to find. They were located in Herzliya, a city I would later discover was 3 and a half hours away by bus from Jerusalem. It had been one of the job postings I had contacted because they didn’t include an address in the description. They were a startup, a new tech company launching during the height of Israel’s tech boom.
They wanted me to come in for an interview. A marketing position. Online marketing. A job at a computer.
I told her. I asked her, should I go? It was so far away. Yes, she said. Of course. Your dreams matter, she said.
The next day, I took the bus ride from one side of Israel to another. I tried to imagine going that far every day. Being gone for so long while my wife was taking care of a baby.
Herzliya was like a paradise. It was where all the tech companies were located, and it was full of palm trees, of young people who looked more like Americans than my Jerusalem UN life. The weather was beautiful, perfect.
The interview went well. The people were friendly. The CEO had used to be religious and she loved a blog I had recently started called “Pop Chassid” that combined movies with Judaism. Like many startups, she wasn’t as interested in my skills as much as my passion. She wanted to see that I could start things from scratch and make them succeed, to see that I was scrappy and inventive.
On the bus ride back, I tried to stay calm, tried to pretend that it wasn’t a big deal whether I got this job, that God would provide either way, that all that mattered was that I provided for my family. But I was happy that I could at least wait a bit before calling my friend.
The next day, I woke up and did my morning ritual. But this time I checked my email first. And already, so quickly, I had received a response. They loved me. They wanted me to start as soon as possible. They paid enough to cover our expenses. If I wanted, I could opt in to private health care for my family.
I didn’t hesitate. I emailed right back, saying I was in, saying I could come in the next day, saying I was excited. I ran over to Rivka and I told her the news and we hugged and smiled.
“You see, Elad? God provided.”
He had. He had.
But first, He had asked me to understand why my dreams mattered, where they stood on the totem pole of priorities in my life. He had pushed me to understand that ultimately, whatever I was doing was primarily for my home, for my family, and not for myself.
I never had to paint a house or bake bread again. The job I took somehow ended up being exactly the career I didn’t even know I dreamed of having. So much of marketing was what I was already doing with my blog, with other sites I had started. Startups were perhaps the most beautiful organizations I had ever come in contact with, and I loved every second of working with them.
When the company did well enough, they paid us to come live in New York City because they needed a representative in America and I was the only one “willing” to relocate. Without them, we never could have afforded to leave Israel. But they paid for all our expenses.
And all of it, all of it, I’m positive with all my heart, was because of that conversation with my therapist. Because God had heard that I would now understand that when He gave out an extra purse for a child, it wasn’t for me to do with as I wished. It was for my family. It came with a child because it was for the child.
God provided. Always, every step of the way. Not just a purse. Not just a job. He provided perspective. And I will remember that for the rest of my life.