The mother explained that for the past several years she had organized a little festival for the Sukkot holiday. They construct a Sukkah hut, a temporary dwelling usually made of palm fronds that observant Jews build every fall to replicate those used by their ancestors after their Exodus from Egypt. “We invite the kids from the street, but they don’t come.”
I thought of how intimidated I had felt just gazing upon their yard, what I understood to be an extension of their secret and sacred world.
Her forehead strained and her eyes grew accusatory. “The neighbors are not friendly with us.”
Now I was getting miffed at her. Instead of recognizing that I was a neighbor reaching out, she was seeing me as representing everyone who hadn’t.
The uncomfortable tension was palpable as she introduced me to her son, the head rabbi. He and I shared a brief, awkward hello with no handshake. When we were kids, it would have been okay for us to talk and play, but now we were officially forbidden from touching and discouraged from engaging in unnecessary chit chat. “Hello,” I said. “Hello,” he said. I suppose with that, a miniscule corner of the universe was mended.
The mother asked me to stay for the women’s group, which was starting in a few minutes. I felt she was just being polite, but I accepted. She and I waited for the others to join us around a big table; sitting quietly together, the vibe between us began to mellow. I tiptoed back to our previous conversation. “Maybe the neighbors don’t realize you’re open to social interaction with them.” I was trying to be as gentle as possible. She didn’t say anything, but she nodded slowly, her scowl softening.
She invited me to return to the synagogue the following Friday for dinner on the first night of Passover. “Thank you,” I said. “I’d like that.” It would be my first-ever official Passover. When the other women arrived, she introduced me as an old neighbor who had returned. “She didn’t feel comfortable saying hello back then, but she’s come now,” she explained. Everyone raised their tiny cups of white wine at me and I said, “Better late than never.”