Mishpacha Magazine: Games and Gowns

by Barbara Bensoussan. Originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine.

gamesThey say parents have ruach hakodesh when they choose their children’s names, and in Joy Glicker Lieber’s case, they chose aptly for a daughter whose principal aim in life seems to be bringing joy to others. A volunteer medical clown in her all-too-rare spare time, Joy’s day job involves working with women at the most “joy”-ous time of their lives: preparing for their weddings. Joy’s zeal to help fulfill community needs led her not only to open up a bridal shop with a full alterations and fabric department, but to devise a fun and inventive game to help young men and women really get to know each other before they commit to smashing the glass.

A Far Rockaway mother of five and grandmother of a growing brood, Joy has a warm, welcoming presence that immediately puts people at ease. In addition to her effusive Ahavas Yisrael, she’s a fountain of creativity, the type who lies in bed at night with ideas burbling through her mind. “I have a slit in my head, and Hashem pours ideas in,” she says cheerfully. I meet Joy at her bridal store, Bridal Secrets, in Cedarhurst. “I originally started in business with a hat store in my basement, called ‘Hatslacha,’” she says. A Stern College graduate who studied art and psychology, she designed and trimmed many of the hats herself. But after her daughter married and went into clothing design, Joy left the basement to her daughter and took a job managing the hat store of one of her former suppliers.

The idea for a bridal store came when she got a call from a woman from Canarsie who’d been referred to her by a mutual friend. The woman’s son had just become engaged to a girl from out of town, and she had no idea how to go about planning a frum wedding.

Joy was able to guide her to a local wedding hall, florist, and photographer. But she suddenly realized there was nowhere local to take the kallah for a gown. “This was in 2002, and there was no bridal shop in the Five Towns,” she says. “I advised the mother to go to Boro Park!”

That night, she woke up at 3:00 a.m. with a lightbulb moment. “I’d been volunteering with the Be’er Miriam Hachnasas Kallah fund, which is part of the Davis Memorial Fund,” she says. “I thought: Let’s open a beautiful bridal store here in the Five Towns, and donate the profits tohachnasas kallah!”

She couldn’t wait to tell Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt, director of the Davis Memorial Fund (Joy and the Greenblatts have known each other since childhood). She lay awake counting the minutes until 6:00 a.m., when she knows Rabbi Greenblatt leaves for daf yomi, to call him with her idea. Rabbi Greenblatt was on board immediately. “What do you need to get started?” was all he wanted to know.

Joy threw her artistic talents into designing the shop, decorating it with whimsical paintings of brides and grooms and has a showcase of bridal ornaments. In another showcase, and on shelves hung above the racks of gowns, stands Joy’s collection of bride dolls (all of them modestly attired). “I even have a tzniusdig bridal Barbie!” she boasts. She has Gibson Girl dolls, a Shirley Temple doll, even a Chinese doll in a white kimono (“That was hard to find, because Chinese brides wear red,” she avers). Other collector’s items include Jackie Kennedy, Princess Diana and Princess Kate dolls. “Kate Middleton deserves praise for bringing back sleeves and a neckline to bridal gowns at a time when nobody non-Jewish was wearing them,” she remarks. Aside from adding interest to the décor, Joy’s bride dolls provide entertainment for the little girls schlepped along to bridal appointments with their big sisters. The Be’er Miriam Hachnasas Kallah fund that the store helps support was named for a TAG (Torah Academy for Girls) student named Miriam Tzipporah, who had passed away suddenly. Joy had the idea for the store in June; the grand opening was scheduled for the day after Sukkos. When Bridal Secrets triumphantly opened its doors, Joy found Miriam Tzipporah’s mother and sister outside with the other well-wishers, bearing balloons and gifts.

“They told me, ‘Mazel tov!,’ she relates, “so I answered, ‘Mazel tov!’ Then they repeated,‘Mazel tov!’

“I thought they’d come to wish me good luck with the store! But that wasn’t the reason! The mother had come to tell me her daughter had become a kallah just the night before. They made a l’chaim on the same date I opened a store to help the kallah fund in memory of her other daughter!”

Tzniusdikification

Creating the gowns for a frum bridal shop isn’t simple; today, almost every gown manufactured is strapless or sleeveless. Joy has to redesign the gowns with the original designers and style them to suit a wide range of tastes.

As Joy tells it, each time she begins an enterprise to fill a community need, she perceives yet another need waiting to be met. While dealing with kallahs and bridal parties, most of whom need at least a little tweaking for their dresses to fit perfectly, Joy realized her community lacked a store dedicated to alterations and what she playfully calls “tzniusdikification.”

The impetus to open one came about five years ago. While walking to her car after work, Joy was hit by a car and narrowly escaped with her life. Miraculously, she was blessed with a full recovery after some weeks in the hospital. Once back on her feet, she resolved to open an alterations place in the lower level of Bridal Secrets, so frum women would be able to“tzniusdikify” their clothing with ease. She came up with the name “Nip and Tuck,” giving her basement a complete makeover. A mannequin in her left-hand store window advertises the business: with typical creative whimsy, Joy dressed her in a checked outfit created from woven measuring tapes, with “shoes” made of zippers and measuring tape “hair” in her “sheitel.” “I’m the queen of shtick!” she admits with a broad grin.

She takes me downstairs for a look. Attention home sewers: you’d feel like a kid in a candy store here, seeing the dazzling variety of trims and fabrics awaiting creative ideas.

Indicating finished garments hanging on racks, Joy displays the many clever solutions she and her staff of seamstresses have devised for making garments more modest: dropping waists, adding fabric or lace to hemlines, making dresses less tight by adding panels on the sides.

“I have to let the customer dictate what she wants in terms of tznius alterations,” Joy avows. “People have different ideas about what’s permissible, and not all my clients are Jewish. Sometimes I have more-religious mothers who want their daughters to be more tzniusdig. But sometimes it’s the daughter who insists on more modesty!”

Like Bridal Secrets upstairs, Nip and Tuck proudly boasts a sign stating that a percentage of the profits goes towards the Be’er Miriam Hachnasas Kallah Fund. “Customers are less likely to quibble over prices when they realize much of the profits go to tzedakah,” Joy says.

The Gentle Art of Dressing Kallahs

Dealing with skittish kallahs is an art all its own, requiring tact and sensitivity. “I really see the parent-child relationship when mothers bring in their daughters,” Joy says. “There are some who are so lovely you just want to hug them. Other mothers are more critical or controlling, and you have to gently remind them to let go a little bit. They got married already; their daughter should be allowed to make her own choices for her wedding.” This is when being a “Bridal Psychologist” is most useful.

She admits it’s delicate when a heavy girl comes in with a mother who’s thin: “Often the girls feel inadequate, and you have to put them at ease and help them feel beautiful in their own way.” Other brides still look like children, so she’s learned to ask tactfully, “Now, who’s the bride?” But she has also dressed older singles getting married for the first time; one 50-year-old woman came in with her elderly mother, who insisted on writing the check for the gown even though her daughter was a successful professional. “Can you imagine how long that mother had been waiting to pay for her daughter’s wedding dress?” Joy says wistfully.

One client surprised her by giving a wedding date that fell out on Shabbos. “It turned out she was an Amish girl from Mechanicsburg, PA,” Joy says. “She told me she was ‘modern Amish,’ looking for modest bridal wear.”

Many kallahs are initially nervous, but Joy does her best to put them as ease in her warm, compassionate fashion. “Your wish is my command!” she announces the minute they walk in the door. She puts on music to lighten the atmosphere, sits the family in the front, and has the kallah present try-ons like a fashion show. She warns the family firmly: “We’re not giving any opinions unless the kallah asks for them.”

After that, it’s a game of elimination. Joy brings out two gowns at a time for the kallah to try, each time eliminating one. (“They’re allowed one tie,” she says.) As they proceed with the “beauty contest” between gowns, kallahs eventually arrive at their big decision.

Most brides need to come in for three fittings, and practicality remains a priority. “We ask the kallah to put her arms around her mother and pretend to dance wearing the dress,” she says. “If the gown is too tight to dance in, it’s no good.”

Keeping the Day Perfect

With one son who’s a musician and another who’s a photographer, Joy’s family is unusually wedding-centered. Between the three of them, Joy has seen and heard just about every disaster possible at a wedding. “I can’t even enjoy weddings. I see everything!” Joy says. “I’ll walk into a smorgasbord and see a woman with a Coke in one hand and meatballs in the other, leaning towards the bride to wish her mazel tov…

“Once the father of a kallah came in to return his daughter’s gown rental the day after the wedding. He was terribly apologetic, offering to pay the purchase price for the gown if we couldn’t get it clean. I was actually at that wedding, and do you know what happened? The kallah’s friends decided to wrap her in purple crepe paper streamers during the second dance, when she’d been dancing hard and her gown was soaked in sweat. I couldn’t stay and watch a disaster happen—I ran out!

“The purple color bled all over her gown. Fortunately for us, the stains did come out at the cleaners’!”

She urges kallahs’ friends to avoid shtick like sparklers, which have been known to burn small brown holes in gowns, and silly string (“One girl’s sister missed the first dance because she was trying to extricate silly string from her hair for the photos!”). Uncovered wooden tables used to lift the kallah have created a spate of splinters lodged in gowns after the wedding.

If you’ve borrowed a friend’s gown and had it cleaned, Joy strongly recommends checking it over well in advance of the big day. She once had a kallah come rushing into her store the day of her wedding, already made up and wearing a veil, desperate for a dress: When she’d taken her borrowed gown out of the cleaner’s bag, she realized that the cleaning process had dissolved the glue attaching all the little flowers to the dress and left a gluey, flower-less mess.(Bridal Secrets never uses glue!)

Then there are the inevitable makeup emergencies! Joy was once on a trip to Chicago, sitting in a taxi, when a kallah’s sister called in hysterics. “Someone got lipstick on my sister’s dress!” she cried so loudly the cab driver could hear. “Put your sister on the phone,” Joy commanded.

“Well, the bride was fine with it, I was proud of her. She just wanted to get married-clean or not” she relates. “I told her, ‘Put baby powder on it—not White Out!’ The taxi driver was laughing—he told me he moonlights as a waiter at weddings!”

After witnessing so many disasters and near-disasters, Joy undertook to write her own guide for preventing bridal emergencies. She complied a small booklet, “Wedding Tips From Bridal Secrets,”(www.bridal-secrets.com) to help weddings run more smoothly (see sidebar). She also put together an online directory of Far Rockaway and Five Towns important community numbers and gemachs (www.thechessednetworknews.org) and perhaps most importantly, gives kallahs reprints of an Aish.com article entitled, “Your Wedding Is Not Supposed to Be the Happiest Day of Your Life.” It reminds kallahs that a wedding, for all its joy, is only the beginning of a long-term, meaningful relationship.

Perfect Matches

Joy’s work with kallahs led her to discern yet another need in the community: young people need ways to know each other better before making the big step to commit. “People get engaged and married very fast these days, especially those afraid of the so-called shidduch crisis,” she says. “But they often don’t know each other so well, and the result is too often, chass v’shalom, broken engagements or speedy divorces.”

As a mother of three sons, she was often privy to kitchen-table discussions of dating. She’d ask her sons’ friends where they went on dates, and was told hotels or restaurants. But it didn’t seem to Joy that the discussions they had on dates were tachlis-driven enough, or sufficient to discern if the couple was suited to live together harmoniously after the wedding. “Parents do their checking, but there are still so many things people don’t discover until later,” she says. “A lot of boys don’t have well-developed skills for talking to girls in an in-depth way.”

She began thinking about the kinds of topics and questions couples should be asking each other –meaningful questions about values and middos and scenarios that might come up in real life. She began jotting down questions whenever they occurred to her, grabbing whatever was at hand—napkins, store receipts. She tested her questions on singles younger and older, from the entire spectrum of Yiddishkeit. “I labored over every word, every punctuation mark,” she says. “It took me two and a half years.”

She then incorporated the five hundred questions into a board game, in which players choose cards with questions on them. Players spin a dice and move a little red car across a board, drawing cards as they go. (“I had a dice specially made to only go up to the number three,” Joy explains, “because I didn’t want the game to move too fast.”) Cards are divided into three levels: “Ice Breakers,” “Getting To Know You,” and “Seriously?!”, with an additional deck for the previously-married (see sidebar).

A graphic designer friend helped with the design of the game; she chose black for the box to keep it inconspicuous, and brightened the board with green-grass accents. The cards fit into a smaller box that can be discreetly brought along on a date. “One Friday night I was lighting Shabbos candles, and I thought, ‘The smaller box should look like a matchbox!’” Joy says. “That led to the name “Perfect Matches’ and a matches theme in the logo.”

She made sure to copyright the game while designing it. Then she realized she should trademark the name too, but had no idea how to go about it. She posted a notice on a communityluach, and received a response from a local man: “I’m in law school, and we’re up to that topic in school. I’ll take it to my professor” he responded. His class undertook her game as a class project, and Joy sent the man a copy of the game in hakaras hatov.

Close to a year later, she found herself playing phone tag with someone trying to reach her. When they finally connected, she realized it was the law student who’d helped her. He told her he had just lost his wife. (“Then I was able to identify who he was,” Joy says, “since we’d only spoken by phone and he has a common last name. But everyone in the community knew his wife was ill.”) Toward the end of his wife’s life, the man related, she asked him to bring Perfect Matches to the hospital; she wanted to play. “We played for days on end,” the bereaved husband told Joy. “We told each other all the secrets of our hearts.

“I don’t have my wife anymore,” he finished. “But thanks to your game, I have some very special memories I wouldn’t have had without it.” (Joy can’t tell this story without both of us tearing up…)

To make sure Perfect Matches would have a rabbinic stamp of approval, Rabbi Greenblatt and his wife, as well as Rabbi Eytan Feiner and his wife, test-drove the little Perfect Matches car across the board before it went on the market. Somewhat later, a Rav from Brooklyn called a Judaica store one motzaei Shabbos with a Perfect Matches “emergency”. “I know you’re not open for business now, but I need one of the games immediately,” he said. “There’s a couple I know about to get engaged, and I’m quite sure they don’t know each other well enough!”
Joy was also encouraged to test-drive the game within her community, a piece of advice received during a free marketing consulting session she’d had through Jewish Women Entrepreneurs. She brought games to a speed dating evening at Cedarhurst’s Carlos and Gabby restaurant, with singles ages 24-36. She dubbed it “The Perfect Matches Marathon”. Enthusiastic participants told her, “It was the best event. Everyone got to meet each person there!” (To schedule a marathon contact info.perfectmatchesgame@gmail.com)

Other people tried out the game last summer during Cedarhurst’s annual sidewalk sale. Joy received comments like, “I love your game and I play with my friends…but I’m not getting any dates!” (Joy invited her to the next marathon.) A little boy walking with his father and grandfather picked a card that asks, “What would you do if you found a $100 bill on the street?”

“I’d run away with it!” the boy responded.

The grandfather shook his head. “Come walk with me,” he told him. “We have to talk about the proper Jewish way to act if you find money.”

A few people pulled the card that asks, “What would you do if you couldn’t find your spouse all day?” Most gave answers like calling family and friends, getting in the car, calling the police. One man said, “I’d cancel her credit cards. Then she’d call me!”

“That sounded like a nasty answer,” Joy says with a smile, “but someone else pointed out that this husband was actually thinking like a good detective!”

Joy would like to continue bringing the game to singles events, and it’s been used with married couples at Shalom Task Force workshops (followed by, ahem, a lecture on conflict resolution!). Many families enjoy playing on long Friday nights and at their Shabbos tables. It’s a great way to really get to know your family members and friends. But its main purpose is still to help dating couples get to know each other. “Girls love it, and shadchanim tell me that a lot of guys won’t date without it!” Joy says. “It stimulates conversation. Often people are afraid to ask certain questions for fear they’ll be too invasive. But if it comes up as part of the game, they’re comfortable talking about it.”

It’s her biggest nachas when the game actually leads to a “perfect match.” One clever chossan actually used her game to propose! He worked it out so that after playing awhile, his date pulled one of the “Seriously?!” cards. But he’d covered the card and changed the question. Instead, she read: “Will you marry me?”

A perfect ending to a perfect match!