June 16, 2024
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June 16, 2024
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Shmuel Aydelman’s Misfortune

“Like a bird that wanders from her nest…like the wandering sparrow, like the flying swallow, so shall a curse for no cause come home.”

— Proverbs 27:8, 26:2

The old joke goes something like this: What is the difference in Yiddish between a schlemiel and a schlemazal? The answer? The schlemiel is the incompetent waiter who drops the plate of hot soup on the unlucky patron, the schlemazal. In the following story we meet Shmuel Aydelman, long-standing Teaneck resident who, sadly, as we shall see, possesses qualities of both types of individuals. Ultimately he finds a solution to most of his problems by receiving an unexpected gift from the past.

Shmuel and his wife, Sarah, moved into Teaneck soon after marrying about 10 years ago. Sarah’s outstanding physical characteristic that attracted Shmuel was that she possessed one green eye and one blue. He found that quite extraordinary. However, from the start of the union things did not go well. Though Shmuel, an only child, had been indulged by a doting mother, and had not been required to help out much at home growing up, once married, he turned out to be quite helpful with the household chores, kind hearted and hardworking, all qualities that Sarah desired. But Sarah was very demanding, and despite his good attributes, Shmuel felt inadequate.

Sarah always seemed to feel Shmuel came up short as a husband, that he lacked ambition and drive. Adding to their problems, to make matters worse, as time went on, it became apparent that Sarah was the true breadwinner in the family, holding down an important job as a school psychologist at a local yeshiva. Shmuel, on the other hand, moved from job to job with little success. It was clear Sarah thought Shmuel not up to the task of being a suitable spouse and this made him feel even more inadequate.

“Shmuel, why you can’t be more like my father, my brother—even your father?” “Don’t you want to amount to something? “Living the life of a nebbish is nothing to be proud of!” “Compared to them, you leave a lot to be desired!”

Of all Shmuel’s qualities (or lack thereof), the one that irked Sarah the most was Shmuel’s love of birds and bird watching. As a youngster growing up, Shmuel loved to visit pet stores in his home town but had no luck with the conventional pets that young boys bonded with: A cute puppy his parents bought him from a stranger on the street lasted about a week before injuring itself on a shirt pin, a pet turtle died of consuming too much matzoh during Chol Hamoed, several goldfish turned up dead from overfeeding etc. The only minor success Shmuel had was, at the age of 14, keeping a parakeet for about a month. One Shabbat afternoon, however, he let Jetty out of his cage to fly from bookcase to bookcase in his parent’s rent-controlled apartment, neglecting to make sure all the windows were closed. Jetty was last seen flying over Teterboro Airport heading south presumably to meet his family in Argentina.

The decision of the young couple to move to Teaneck had been a joint one, but Shmuel soon discovered the town was on several major bird flight paths. From the comfort of his den he could observe 30 to 40 bird varieties fly by, and even better, he could set up feeding stations in his backyard that allowed him to study closely the birds who came to visit and feed. Sarah was not happy with this development:

“You know, Shmuel, sometimes I think you like your bird friends more than you like people. What a waste of time!”

Sarah’s remark wasn’t far from the truth, for over the weeks and months, Shmuel became adept at bird watching from his protected lair. He gradually familiarized himself with the many and varied species that flew by: northern cardinals, four types of woodpeckers, sparrows, mourning doves, blue jays and assorted blackbirds, to name but a few common types. It became such an obsession that the inevitable day arrived when Shmuel got up the nerve to declare his most secret desires to Sarah. He had researched the topic carefully and wanted to buy a pair of red factor canaries to keep indoors as house pets. Just the thought of sharing her home with Shmuel’s obsession was enough to cause Sarah even more aggravation:

“Not in my house, Shmuel, never!” “You can’t clean up after yourself and you expect me to believe you’ll clean a bird cage every day? Impossible!” “I won’t have it!”

“But Sarah, they are beautiful birds and they sing so sweetly, you’ll love them,” Shmuel insisted.

“If the birds come, I’m going!” (Sarah’s final words on the matter.)

Shmuel had to come up with a plan. As long as Sarah was opposed, he didn’t feel strong enough to challenge her. So he bided his time. As luck would have it, he read that an exhibition had travelled from the Bible Lands museum in Jerusalem to Fairleigh Dickinson University the previous week on the subject of Jewish Kabbalah: White and Black Magic Through the Ages. The exhibit ran for another week and Shmuel, sneaking out of the house, made it his business to attend twice without Sarah. Copies of kabbalistic texts were available for sale in connection with the exhibition and Shmuel carefully selected a volume that contained a description of ancient incantations as well as protective amulets against the evil eye. He asked the saleslady to discreetly wrap the books he purchased so Sarah wouldn’t discover what he had bought.

When he got home, he hid his books of magic deep in the downstairs closet.

The next week Sarah attended a wedding of one of the teachers at her school while Shmuel stayed home complaining of a headache. After Sarah left for the wedding, Shmuel rushed to the closet to retrieve the books he had purchased. He read chapters on how to cast spells, call spirits and put one’s enemies in a trance. He didn’t understand everything he was reading, but the basic directions even he could follow. After an hour, he wrapped the books up and returned them to his hiding place.

The next day he reviewed the chapters that interested him and felt ready to act. At dinner he pounced: “Tomorrow I’m buying a pair of red factor canaries, a male and a female. I want to breed them.”

“Don’t you dare, Shmuel,” Sarah countered.

“You know only male canaries sing,” he said, ignoring her. “Some believe that the males only sing if they are in solitary confinement, and as soon as you bring a female into his presence, he stops singing, losing his joy in life, I guess!”

“You’re crazy, Shmuel. I warn you not to bring those birds into this house. There will be dire consequences if you do!”

Shmuel walked away, apparently crestfallen that Sarah remained adamant in her opposition.

The next evening when Sarah returned home from work, she noticed Shmuel was not seated in the den in his regular recliner looking out at his favorite birds.

“Shmuel, where are you?” she called.

“Come to the living room, Sarah. I have something to show you, dear.”

Sarah turned the corner and the first thing she saw in the living room was a large bird cage on a pole. Inside the cage fluttered a finch-like red factor canary, singing a delightful tune of many notes.

“I see you defied me, Shmuel, but I thought you said there would be two birds; I see you were only brave enough to buy one!” And that’s one too many, smarty!”

“I decided to buy a male, and see how you like him, Sarah, before I provide him with a mate.”

Before Sarah could respond she noticed Shmuel was reciting some Hebrew words over and over; she suddenly felt ill and swooned to the floor…

Upon her disappearance, the considered opinion of Sarah’s employers, her friends and relatives was that Sarah had finally left Shmuel, had had enough of his incompetence. All expected her to show up shortly with a divorce lawyer. But that didn’t happen.

Shmuel continued to live in their Teaneck home and continued his bird-watching ways. No dishes remained uncleaned in the sink, all the laundry was washed and dried and Shmuel didn’t have a care. He was content mostly to watch his beloved pair of canaries in their large cage: the male whom he named Jetty II and the female to whom he gave no name.

“She’s quite something,” he said. “Since she joined Jetty, he hasn’t sung a note. I guess he’s mesmerized by her one blue eye and one green eye!

Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife, Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.

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