She walked stiffly in her black patent flats with the wave of the crowd, mouth in a tight grimace, loose hairs blowing like party streamers from her pony tail. Her black wool Shabbos jacket was a stylish choice, but it didn’t do much to shield the cold wind from wrapping itself around her torso in an icy hug.
“Hurry up, Rena!” her friend Hildy called. “We need to get a good place to say tehillim.”
Rena smiled down into her collar as she picked up her pace. For Hildy, a good place meant one where she could spot her new choson, Mendy, who would be at men’s intersection on Fulton Street. They were both going to be at the Wall Street Atzeres Tefillah in protest of the Israeli military draft of haredi men.
Mendy and Hildy had agreed to both be as close to the Fulton street intersection as possible, so that they could make eye contact and see each other from a distance. They hadn’t been allowed to meet up since their vort last month, and they were supposed to stay apart until their wedding, which was coming up in a few weeks. However, thanks to WhatsApp, Hildy and her choson had been communicating regularly without their parents’ knowledge or interference.
Hildy and Mendy weren’t the only couple arranging meetings at the Wall Street rally. WhatsApp had been buzzing in the days leading up to the protest with networking plans. It wasn’t often that a gathering of this size was organized. Although the protest was for a serious cause, there was as much excitement and anticipation for the event as there would have been for any large celebration. People furiously texted meeting times and places to their friends, business connections, and even romantic interests. Knowing that the majority of the haredi world in New York would be present at the rally was a heady feeling.
Rena was definitely caught up in the thrill of the moment. Her reason for showing up to the Atzeres was, on the surface, to accompany Hildy in her effort to see Mendy. Secretly, however, she was hoping that Mendy’s chavrusa, Saul, would be there. Rena first met Saul at Hildy’s vort. Well, “met” might be too strong a term. Rena wasn’t formerly introduced to any of the young men at the engagement party, but as one of Mendy’s best friends, Saul gave a dvar Torah to the entire party in honor of his friend’s upcoming marriage. Saul was tall and well built. He had thick black hair, a fair complexion, and deep blue eyes.
His eyes…those eyes reminded her of a poem she had read once at the library. It was called, “Lapis Lazuli,” by a non Jewish man named William Butler Yeats. Art and poetry had little meaning in Rena’s world. It was pure foolishness to waste time reading about goyishe make believe. That’s why Rena would hide in a little library carrel and hunker down to read behind its low walls. Even if the world was crumbling around her, Rena still found meaning in art and beauty, and in Saul’s lapis lazuli blue eyes.
Rena and Hildy made their way to the front of a large crowd of women. While there were a few mothers and children, most of the group rifling through pages of small handheld tehillim, were young fresh-out-of-seminary girls like themselves. They passed a few revelers taking selfie photos in front of the crowd.
“Can you believe her?” Hildy hissed. “What do you think Elka’s mother would say if she saw her taking a picture like that in front of all these people?”
As the girls passed Elka, who by now had put her phone away, they both called out brightly, “Hi!” Elka waved gaily back with a big smile.
A moment later, Rena felt her phone buzz in her coat pocket. With frozen hands, she fished out the device and found a WhatsApp notification. Opening it, she saw a smiling photo of Elka standing in front of tall buildings, her windswept hair blowing out attractively behind her. Rena briefly wondered if she should do her own impromptu photo shoot. Would she send the picture to Saul? The thought was ridiculous.
Saul was otherworldly. His bright eyes saw beyond what was in this world, and into the giddying heights of the world to come. Rena knew this from the way he gave over his dvar Torah at the vort. She had never witnessed a young man who spoke with such sincerity and depth. Most kollel guys sounded like they were giving over their bar mitzvah speech. There didn’t seem to be much maturity or growth since their teen years. Saul was an illui. There was no doubt in Rena’s mind. Saul would go on to do great things, and any woman who married him would be swept along with him toward that greatness.
Rena desperately wanted to be that woman, but she knew that a top bochur like Saul would never notice her. More importantly, no shadchan would ever think that she would be a suitable match for a guy like Saul. Saul needed a rich girl to support him through his years of intense Torah study. Along with money, often came beauty. Anyone can buy beauty for the right price. A poor girl, who is plain, usually must remain so.
Rena was a good girl. She always got decent grades, was well liked by teachers and peers, and she presented a tidy and pleasing image. However, Rena was a plain Jane. She came from a modest family with five siblings, a stay at home mom, and a father who worked for a local catering company. They were a perfectly lovely and respectable family, but not a family who could secure the next gadol hador in marriage for their daughter.
“Rena, Rena!! Look over there!” Hildy pointed excitedly to the sea of men on the other side of the street intersection. Rena struggled to recognize a familiar face in the sea of black hats, black coats, black pants, and black shoes.
“No, not there!” Hildy nudged Rena’s shoulder with her own. “Over there. See, it’s him!” Hildy’s curly blonde head leaned out past Rena toward Mendy. Rena caught a whiff of strawberry shampoo as the wind blew locks of Hildy’s hair toward Rena’s mouth.
Picking Hildy’s hair off of her wind chapped lips, Rena craned her neck to see if Saul was next to Mendy. A tall man was standing next to the shorter Mendy, but she couldn’t see his face. Mendy suddenly spotted the waving Hildy, and a broad smile filled his face. He didn’t wave back, as that would be unseemly in front of his kollel comrades, but his look said how pleased he was to see Hildy.
“We did it! I can’t believe we pulled it off, Rena!” Hildy gushed with a mischievous look in her eyes. “If my mother knew about this, she’d kill me!” Hildy smiled at the thought of what her mother would say about this clandestine meeting.
Suddenly, the tall man next to Mendy turned around. It was Saul! Rena felt short of breath. Saul turned his attention in the direction of Mendy’s gaze. He bent down slightly to say something to Mendy, and then returned his look back to the important rabbis sitting in the front of the crowd. Saul closed his eyes and began shuckling and mouthing words in time with thousands of other voices intoning prayers. Mendy gave one last look at Hildy, and then followed Saul’s lead, an invisible mechitza crashing down between him and his kallah in the middle of downtown New York.
“Ok, let’s go!” Hildy announced. “I’m freezing!”
“That’s it?” Rena asked. “We came all this way so you could stare at each other for 30 seconds?”
“What did you expect? That we would meet up afterward for coffee? Don’t be silly. I got what I came for.” Hildy laughed.
Rena hustled behind Hildy, trying not to let disappointment overtake her. Saul hadn’t even made eye contact with her. She didn’t exist for him, and therefore, she didn’t want to exist at all. It was hopeless. The only way that she would ever get a proper introduction to Saul was through a shadchan, and no shadchan would ever set the two of them up together. Rena felt tears forming in the corners of her eyes, and she angrily wiped them away with a gloved hand.
“What’s wrong?” Hildy asked, as the two bumped into foot traffic near the Porta Potty stations.
“I don’t feel so good. Would you mind stopping here for a second? I need to use the bathroom.” Rena said.
“Can’t you wait twenty minutes? These outdoor bathrooms are so gross!” Hildy made a face.
“Ladies, step this way please. Are you getting in line?” A young man with an orange vest, kippah, and blonde beard was organizing the flow of traffic in two directions. One led to the Porta Potties and the other to the main thoroughfare away from the protest.
Hildy tried to drag Rena in the direction of the exiting crowd, but Rena paused.
“Hey, hey!” the young man called to a few teenagers pushing their way through the herd of people. “Walk like a mentch! There are women and children here!”
The man took a walkie-talkie out of a holster around his waist and pressed the button. “Shimmy? ” the walkie-talkie emitted static. “It’s Peretz..can you send over some more guys? People are starting to leave and the crowd’s getting heavy over here!”
Peretz looked at the girls, “So which way can I direct you, ladies? I’ll lead the way through these people if you need to use the facilities.” Something about the way the girl with the dark ponytail looked made him feel uneasy, as if she were about to faint.
“Rena, what will it be? I’ll wait for you if you really need to go.” Hildy said, trying to be nice even though all she wanted to do was beat the crowd to the bus going back home.
Rena shifted from one foot to the other uneasily. Being addressed by Peretz had surprised her out of her tears. She thought she was recovered enough from her disappointment to hold it together on the bus ride home.
“I’m good, really.” Rena said to Hildy and Peretz. “Let’s just head to the bus.”
Peretz used his broad frame to shield the girls from the oncoming crowd and lead them to an opening on the street that led away from the rally’s epicenter. “Stay safe!” he called, as the girls scurried away.
Turning back to the Porta Potties, he encountered a commotion as people gathered around one of the units. Someone had accidentally gotten locked inside a Porta Potty and an expanding group of protesters were rattling the door trying to free the prisoner.
“Shimmy! I need some help!” Peretz said into his walkie-talkie once more.
Later that night, Rena sat in her room thinking about the day. Hildy had been over the moon about seeing Mendy. They spent the bus ride home talking about Hildy’s wedding plans and the shopping trips to Boro Park to set up her new apartment. Rena felt honored that she had been asked to accompany Hildy to help her make choices in china patterns, silverware, linens, and other household essentials. The only thing that would make the experience sweeter was if she were also getting married and making purchases for her own “bayis neeman b’yisroel.”
“Stop it!” Rena thought. “No use in torturing myself by wishful thinking.”
She thumbed through her phone, looking at photo updates from the rally posted by her friends. If only there was a way that she could reach out to Saul indirectly. Maybe he did see her at the Atzeres, but he couldn’t acknowledge her due to modesty? Maybe Saul and she weren’t so different? She could tell that he was a deep person, with more beneath the surface than was apparent. Could it be that he felt the same way that she did?
She opened up the Craigslist app that she had downloaded with Hildy as a joke. The two of them had laughed and gasped at the crazy personal ads people placed there. Frum Jews, seeking the most inappropriate relationships. Hildy thought the ads were all fake. She said they were posted by anti-Semites who wanted to make Jews look bad. At first, Rena had agreed, but after awhile, she wondered if the people who wrote those ads might be real – sad and misguided – but real.
Rena saw a section for “Missed Connections.” Saul and she were certainly a missed connection.
“I wouldn’t dare.” thought Rena. “Would I?”
Rena sat at her desk and started composing her advertisement –
“I saw you in the crowd near Fulton Street. You looked so into the prayers, tehillim, so sincere. You were different from the others somehow, although to other eyes, you blended seamlessly into the sea of white and black. Brilliant blue eyes, long dark payos, tall – you didn’t notice me, I’m sure. I also don’t stand out in a crowd unless you are really looking. I too blend into the masses – dark wool coat, black flats, sensible skirt, black hair pulled into a ponytail. I’m nothing special on the outside, but on the inside I lead a colorful existence – one which I would love to share with you. If you look closely, you will see that my eyes hold a world of possibilities.”
After she gave her confirmation to publish her ad, Rena sat back and considered what she had done. While she felt slightly ashamed, she also held onto the hope that somehow, her words would reach out to Saul and he would see them. She imagined getting a response from him confirming his mutual feelings. Anticipating what the morning could bring, Rena put her phone on her nightstand, turned out the light, and said Shema.
The next morning, Rena held herself back from checking her email upon awakening. After she was dressed, she permitted herself to check. Nothing. No response. Rena checked the Craigslist website to make sure her ad appeared in Missed Connections. It was there.
Rena walked over to her mirror and looked into her reddening eyes. “Stupid, stupid, girl! Did you actually think a tzaddik like Saul would be trolling the depths of pritzus on a site like that! Do you think he would marry a girl who would post an ad on there? Everyone is right not to match you up with a quality boy like that! You don’t deserve anyone like him!”
Rena grabbed her phone and deleted the ad, vowing to give up all social media. She threw the phone onto her unmade bed in disgust and slammed the door as she left her room.
Meanwhile, a new email appeared in Rena’s account. It read,
“Hello. I’m not the guy that you’re probably looking for…but I was also in the Atzeres. I know your ad wasn’t meant for me because I was not from the crowd, but was working security in the orange jacket. I figured I would try to respond, as I am also someone that doesn’t stand out, but as you put it “I do have a very colorful inside.” Maybe you would find it in your heart to give me a chance?”