Today it was officially confirmed that I have a face that broadcasts ‘Bais Yaakov girl’ to other Jews. It’s happened before, but this is proof.
Ok, on to the proper post. I was walking towards a fairly busy urban bus stop, and I see a woman who seems to be talking to someone as I approach. It turns out, she was talking to me. Over the wind, I didn’t hear her at first, but when I was safe and warm(er) in the shelter, she repeated herself.
“How was your Shabbat?”
And so a conversation began. It wasn’t always easy to hear, but I discovered that she was an adult participant in one of the special needs programs the local frum community runs. We talked about Shabbat, Chanukah, stir fry (yes, really,) and, while on the topic of food, some of my best memories from my last visits to my grandparents abroad – chicken soup was high on the list.
This may be surprising, but I’m not actually good at talking when put on the spot. But if you’d been there, you too, likely, wouldn’t have felt you could end the conversation. So the whole time, I was just focused on trying to understand what she was saying, and to reply in kind. (Thank you, Imma, for all the times you’ve dragged me to talk to absolute strangers for the sake of a mitzvah!)
Once I was sitting on the bus, snug in the rear-most seat for the long ride home, I had a chance to think about what G-d wanted me to learn from this, my latest question about everything. Why was this opportunity given to me? And why did this woman start talking to an absolute stranger, just because I looked Jewish, as though we were friends? I want to be all philosophical, and say it’s a universal connection between all Yidden, everywhere. And maybe it is.
But what formed that connection? I think it can only have been past experiences. If this woman thought that she would enjoy talking to me and was totally comfortable giving it a try, there must have been other Bais Yakkov girls in the past – girls who started the conversations, and then girls who responded to her greetings with warmth and genuine interest. I can’t have been the first person she talked to like this – especially not spontaneously, outside the framework of a program. So she knew that I would be nice and she could talk to me. I don’t know who all these other young women are, but I’m proud to be associated with them.
It makes me look back at some other moments I’ve had over the past month. A woman at a local Jewish bookstore who asked if I knew where she might find a headcovering shop. (I actually found that conversation very heartwarming. She was invited for Shabbat to a chassidish family, and she wanted to cover her head properly out of respect for them. I gave directions to a local store that sells hats and snoods, and would have gone with her if I didn’t have class in five minutes. I knew she would be in good hands there.)
Two bochurim taking the same late-evening bus I was, and who, while talking to each other, missed an announcement over the intercom abut a delay in the route. They were too shy to ask anyone around what the message had been, and I could relate enough to put aside my own shyness and repeat the message for them.
All this newfound voice came in bits and pieces, but a major turning point was Chol Hamoed Sukkot – I was walking to an appointment with offices housed inside a hospital. I was running late, and my mother dropped me off by the main doors and told me to rush, but not panic. Then she spotted and elderly gentleman waiting outside the doors in a wheelchair, carrying a lulav bag. She told me to go wish him a Moed Tov, and, so surprised at the change of priorities, I obeyed without question, stamping my shyness down inside. The man’s face lit up once I plucked up the courage to speak loud enough to be heard, and we began a short conversation about the chag in my badly accented Hebrew (with English when I got desperate.) I wasn’t late for my appointment, and the whole discussion warmed my heart in a way I so badly needed that day.
Reflecting, I’m very grateful I’ve had a chance to strengthen this bond between all Yidden, this feeling that you can trust the Jew beside you. People talk about unfriendliness, but I see that mostly (still rarely) happening in groups. Without the peer pressure, and without the thoughts that someone else could do a better job, we are all more ready to act on our feelings of responsibility for each other. On the road, amid the rest of the world, I’ve seen so much kindness regardless of religion, age, or background, but I’ve also seen the way Jews are ready to speak to each other and care.