Two weeks ago, I got a call from my local butcher. “Hi, Shannon? Yeah, it’s Harold,” he said. “Did your neighbor Stephanie have her baby yet? I know she’s due soon and wanted to see if they need anything.”
“Oh yeah,” he added, almost as an afterthought, “we have some great short ribs this week— do you want some?”
I hung up the phone after sharing, no, she hadn’t yet had the baby, and, yes — of course I want some short ribs.
I suddenly realized: I basically live in a shtetl. And I love it.
I’m not being glib; I’m not romanticizing shtetl life, Fiddler On the Roof-style. I realize that shtetls were not glamorous places. Here in New Jersey, my family lives in a beautiful house with 4.5 bathrooms and flat-screen TVs in several rooms — a far cry from farm life in the Ukraine.
But for the first time, I am seeing how much value there is to being part of a tight-knit Jewish community. And I’m not just talking about a call from our local kosher butcher. I can almost always find someone willing to meet up for a playdate, or someone who will pick up paper towels for me at Costco, and even someone who will make us some extra challah dough when I am having a particularly crazy week.
This isn’t something I experienced in my childhood. I grew up in a small, conservative town about an hour north of New York City, where most families were Irish or Italian Catholic. Much of the social life there revolved around PTA meetings and football games. There were few Jews around, and as “half-breeds” who hailed from hippie musicians — my parents were both pianists — we didn’t easily fit into these circles, Jewish, football, or otherwise. We had lots of friends, but I don’t recall it being quite as familial and tight-knit as the community here in South Orange, New Jersey, where my husband and I moved two and half years ago.
Take, for example, our uniquely modern circle of hell that is air travel. When we needed a ride home from the airport — with our children, and at 5 a.m., no less — we were flooded with offers. Five or six members of our synagogue (shout out Congregation Beth El!) volunteered for the task. Meanwhile, we couldn’t successfully bribe a single family member to come collect us.
When my second daughter was born two years ago, we were showered with meals — including a complete Shabbat dinner from our synagogue’s sisterhood. But that was only the beginning. So many community members picked up our older daughter from school when I couldn’t drive, or invited her over for playdates as we adjusted to life as a family of four. During those hazy early months, it was such a relief to have some quiet afternoons one-on-one with my newborn, without the pressure of entertaining an energetic toddler.
Just last week, we got a call from our pediatrician: Our older daughter had strep, and needed antibiotics. My husband and I weren’t around, and our au pair was home but didn’t have a car. We quickly texted a few friends — and, of course, someone offered to run to the pharmacy for us.
In turn, we have paid this forward. I always participate in meal trains when people have babies or are sick — I’ll roast a chicken or bake some bread. My husband is co-chair of the preschool board, and I’ll often find him participating in endless conference calls and hosting monthly meetings.
I’ve learned that an important part of community life is just showing up: You’ll find us at pretty much all the preschool events, and Saturday morning “mini minyans,” and holiday celebrations. There is something incredibly comforting about seeing the same faces, catching up with friends, and feeling like we found a place where we belong. Also, if nothing else, community activities are a great way to entertain your kids on the weekends.
Of course, in a close-knit community, you have to be willing to take the good with the bad. I run into people I know literally everywhere. That is sometimes a good thing — a boring errand is always more fun when you bump into a friend — and sometimes not (like when you haven’t slept or showered in two days, and your child throws an epic tantrum in the Lowes parking lot.)
Then there’s the gossip. The kids will dish when they come home from school, or there’s always chatter on the local Facebook groups. Yes, it can be fun — but it also means that someone might and likely is gossiping about you. When an issue arises — at school, maybe, or within an event committee — everyone will quickly know. Most of it comes from genuine concern about community members, but sometimes it’s just downright catty.
Also, life in my shtetl can be expensive. Synagogue dues, Federation contributions, JCC memberships — not to mention the high cost of living in a community that offers such things — really add up. Truth be told, we don’t buy into all of them. And I feel OK about that, too.
Our shtetl may not work for everyone — perhaps the financial burden is too great, or the social-emotional demands are too intense, or family or work responsibilities pull families to other, less Jewishly-saturated spots on the globe. I certainly don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to Jewish involvement. I think every family should do what feels right for them. But I still marvel at how well our community-oriented Jewish life is working for us.
Our community has been good to us because we’ve been good to it: We’ve chosen to opt-in, show up, help out, and to be an active part of this modern, suburban shtetl. And if any of you need a ride to the airport, you know where to find me.
(Image of Marc Chagall painting by Steve Simmonds/Flickr)