“I’d rather shove a fork in my eye.”
That was my response when my husband said his parents called and asked if we’d like to come spend the last Shabbat of Sukkot with them in the ultra-Orthodox community my husband, children and I recently moved out of. It wasn’t any one thing in particular that gave me the knee-jerk, panic-stricken reaction to shout, “NO!”
In part, it was the fact that my relationship with my in-laws has been cordial but not particularly warm. It was the idea of spending 24 hours in a place where I’d never felt like myself. And much more basic than that, I hate packing my boys and all their belongings up and taking them somewhere unfamiliar to spend the night. They don’t ever sleep well, which means I don’t sleep well and that translates into one miserable weekend for everyone. My husband said, “Think about it and we’ll let them know tomorrow.”
My internal 4-year-old kicked in and, in my head I listed off all the reasons I shouldn’t have to go. They were pretty good reasons too, but negated completely when my 3 ½ year old looked at me one morning and said, “So, are we going to Bubbie and Zaydie’s for Shabbos?”
Damn. They really do hear everything.
That was all it took, my little boy’s big blue eyes looking up at me, wide and questioning. Of course we would go. How could we not? How could I let my opinions and selfishness get in the way of the most important people in my world spending time with some of the most important people in theirs?
The dreaded weekend came; I packed our bags and decided to cover my hair out of respect for my in-laws.
As with most things I dread, it was much better than I imagined. The family seemed to have doubled since the last time we were all together. Instead of a room full of adults small talking, the house was filled with toddlers, babies and newborns all cooing and laughing and the conversation, of course, centered on them. My tension began to lift.
Sitting in the sukkah talking with my sister-in-law I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t wanted to go, that I thought so surely I’d be out of place. I always felt different from my husband’s family and the community even when I was one of them. Now that I thought they didn’t consider me Orthodox, no matter what I considered myself, I knew that I would feel like even more of an outsider.
On Shabbat day, some people I passed on the sidewalk who used to smile and say “good shabbos,” turned their heads and ignored me, but not all of them. Some greeted me as they always had and I found myself more thankful for their quiet kindness than hurt by the rudeness of religious superiority. No matter what I think of how they practice Judaism, that was the first community I called home and I wouldn’t be the person I am now without them. I will always be grateful for many of the friendships and all of the love I received there.
I’m still not sure what made that Shabbat different from all the others I spent around my in-laws table. Maybe it was that everyone was focused on the children and not themselves, maybe we had all grown up or maybe it was just me that needed to grow up and become comfortable in my own skin. All I know is that spending Shabbat in the community I thought I left made me realize that, just as we can’t escape where we are born, I cannot escape where I was born as a Jew, and much to my surprise, it seems that even if I could change it, I wouldn’t want to.