The mother

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.”

15 thoughts on “The mother

  1. OOh – you built well made bridges with your words, no matter how tension filled – but then your lifework already reflects that 🙂 . I am thinking that this might have had happened this way – Was there an invite for the none kids to come over and play, that was extended probably to only one mother/child/family? and the invite never was passed along to the other families…or maybe its a reflection of how times have changed starting back when – Stranger danger started to come into play after the Adam Walsh and Jacob Wetterling cases – and most if not all parents became aware due to media that if it could happen to a child in small town Minnesota in broad daylight in front of witnesses, or at sears store with their own parents, it could happen anywhere- whose to be trusted with the children? And from then on, parenting included isolating their children from people they didnt know -which is a good thing, but also prevents social interaction…where is the safety balance? II do believe for the most part that is why video games became popular with all income levels of parents starting then – imo the belief that it kept your children indoors where they could be kept “safe” from strangers and out of mischief and it was worth the price to them…now there is a nationwide push to try to get them back outside to get healthy (sunlight!) and exercise (good for you!) – however ironically WII came up with interaction games to try to counter that lol.

    Somehow, somewhere, we know the pendulum will hopefully swing to a good location concerning social interaction, safety and children. Your understanding of this was well documented when you extended a “hand of friendship” even though you felt yourself becoming defensive – as a child, you could hardly been blamed for not going over to a strangers house to play, but yet, in their world, it felt like an act of rejection. But you shrugged off the defensive by being an adult and moved on…your journey into religion is fascinating – am looking forward to when you are writing about Islam too!

    Id love to hear the details on what is served during at a Passover Seder – if i remember correctly, each food represents a moment in Jewish history…?

  2. I had some treats and a visit one afternoon with my Dear Jewish friend at her tent two years ago. i was honored and delighted to have been asked. i regreted that the woman’s arms didnot seem quite as open/welcoming as I had wished for you, but culturaly I have an understanding…..Colleen

    • Hi Walt, I think you’re right–she did soften a bit over the course of our interaction. It’s funny because in my attempt to heal what I thought of as “my wound” from the past, I think I inadvertently opened a wound for her. I don’t believe her reaction to me was necessarily about me (I realize, also, that what I perceived as her lack of warmth may also just be her individual character and certainly not representative of any particular faith). I found it so interesting how the tables turned on me because I really didn’t think I’d be confronting her pain when I walked in there. But I think in some way that was an even more powerful lesson for me that what I had expected might happen.

  3. If you are officially forbidding from touching, social interaction or small chit chat, how are you supposed to connect with him as a human being? Or is that allowed. I am not trying to sound snarky, just trying to figure out how the Orthodox go about having anything to do with any other human beings. It sounds difficult, and I am really curious.

    • Hi Patti, Well, I don’t think it’s as complicated when men are meeting other men or women are meeting other women–regardless of whether the new people are Jews or orthodox or not. However, between men and women who have never met before, my understanding is that there’s a bit more formality to the get-to-know-ya process (and no physical contact). That’s not to say the man and woman can’t have a meaningful conversation or talk about any number of things, really. I just think it means that there’s some attention paid or thought given to what the intention of the interaction is.

      • Ok. If the intention of the interaction is to be friends, is that allowed? Are you allowed, for instance, to get to know each other as couples in a non family group. Or is non synagogue socialization also gender based?

        • This might be an excellent place for Rabbi Aaron to chime in…I will see if I can get him to help us out. I think it is okay for non-related men and women to be friends and to get to know each other, etc. For example, a few posts back I describe a lunch I attended in an orthodox household (Barbara’s house) and the men sat on one side of the table, the women on the other. We were “separated” but we could see one another and talk normally. Also, another rabbi at the Hassidic synagogue came up to me later and probably could have chatted the night away. This is the man I describe earlier as having the “Joe Pesci voice” and he just happened to be extremely extroverted. He was the other rabbi’s much younger brother. He sat opposite me at the table and laughed and talked, etc.

          • Hi Everyone,

            Social interaction is a great and often misunderstood value.

            First a few background tidbits for perspective. I was Vice President of a Business Professional Fraternity in the 70’s. One of my duties was to seek new pledges. Our fraternity was “male only” and we did not share a dorm, it was for the purpose of enhancing our business education. I had the pleasure to bring the first female nationwide into our local chapter of this national organization. It was a time of great change. At that time, it was not fashionable to extend your hand to any women to shake hands unless she offered first.

            In the late 90’s I was invited to a luncheon with one of the family members that own the international company Flexsteel. They are based in Dubuque, also infamously known as the last city in the US to have an active chapter of the Klu Klux Klan. He had a lot of character as he brought me to their exclusive country club. I had my kippa on, my full beard and a bowl of uncut fruit to eat, When I walked in that place you could have heard a pin drop. I am sure that I was the first Orthodox Jew that the walls of that place had ever seen. I give alot of credit to the fellow who brought me, he and I did not get caught up stupid projections and norms we respected each other and had a great time.

            What seem shocking now was common practice to many in the US a short time ago. Societies broader reasons for its customs often change as often as the wind blows.

            Boundaries are a part of Judaism to reinforce what is valuable, not to stifle life.

            The bond between a man and a women is meant to be dedicated to each other. Both honor this by not touching others of the opposite sex, (besides their family). Intimacy is something treated by Jews as Gdly.

            This is no different than the elaborate security on our online bank accounts. It is because we value and want to preserve that which is special. Protecting one’s heart is a sound and wise approach to find meaning in life; to create and sustain durable relationships. Boundaries protect us from empty intimacy (I guess that is an oxymoron)…

            Naturally one anecdote rarely brings out the breadth of rich idea. My kids and good friends of ours who had kids the same age grew up together and they are like cousins. Once they reached a marriageable age they do tend to distance themselves to some degree, but after marriage these friendships carry on in a more refined way.


  4. I meant forbidden, and I am of course talking about the boy who grew up to be a Rabbi. Sorry. Coffee not kicked in yet.

  5. As I was reading this I wondered, too, if the mother wasn’t carrying some general baggage of ‘Jews will most likely be rejected’ and so she looked at relationships with neighbors through that lens. You know how you can assume someone feels a certain way and you respond to them defensively out of your perception, rather than taking the chance that they would actually like you and enjoy being in your presence. Perception and reality are two different things. What a great reward you received for your risk, and your humility is noteworthy when you affirmed her introduction! Yes, better late than never! That’s awesome Corinna!

    • Thanks, Ginger. I have to say that doing this quirky thing of finding my old neighbors and making contact with them was overall a wonderful experience. Even for all the awkwardness and uncomfortable moments, I still felt better coming out of it than I did going in. It made me feel deep down very brave and just plain good. I do think the mother’s reaction contained the pain of years of rejection–and perceived rejection–perhaps even going back generations.

  6. I’m thinking about Susan Cain’s “Quiet” book discussed several posts back. As her book said, most Americans put a high value on being outgoing and assertive, which contradicts the more inwardly-focused Orthodox tradition. Even as a kid, Corinna, maybe you picked up on that difference and that’s what kept you from making contact. Kids also take keys from their parents and other adults. If adults in the neighborhood established contact with their Orthodox neighbors, then maybe it would have been easier for you as well. In any case, it does seem a little odd the mother would have been carrying that around for so long, and make it the first thing she mentioned. But at least she’s seems to be willing to make an effort to make a connection now and not let the past taint your current attempt to get to know her and her family.

    • All I know is that I was such a shy little introvert when I was young that I would not have gone into that neighbor’s yard even if I had been invited by “the mother” herself! There are many reasons that children do not respond to being asked to experience something different…..something unknown. MET

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