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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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A Sense Of Belonging


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“I just know you are going to love it here…” the sugary voice of the real estate agent broke through my daydream in which our future house featured prominently. “This yishuv is known for its warm and friendly atmosphere; there are several shuls to choose from; you’ll never find a house at this price so close to Yerushalayim; and the schools are some of the best in the country.”

My husband had known from the start that this was where he wanted to live: he had gone to yeshiva right nearby. Besides, his Australian country spirit had never been fully at peace in the city. Now it was up to me. I, on the other hand, had always lived in the city. I liked strolling down the busy boulevards, catching buses home after late-night events, and having the world within walking distance.

I stood silently, gazing out at the glinting sunset reflected in the surrounding mountains’ embrace. I visualized the mikvah the olei regel years ago immersed in that stood just outside the town’s borders, imagined walking up the hill to a morning Tanach shiur at eight and then down at nine. I admired the array of head coverings on the women – bandanas, hats, scarves, sheitels – and the little boys – kipot of blue, white, black, intricately embroidered Yemenite designs. It was a sea of color – past, present and future – nestled within the stark green and brown peaks of Midbar Yehuda. I liked what I saw. “It’s perfect,” I said. “It’ll be home.”

We moved in just before Pesach. I instantly loved my new house. And like any good relationship, it improved consistently with the time and efforts I put in, hanging pictures in the living room, planting impatiens and a real cherry tree in the front garden! My husband was welcomed in shul and soon had his makom kavua. The grocery lady quickly learned my name. And just as the real estate agent had promised, it was indeed the perfect place for raising children. There was just one problem: We didn’t have any.

It wasn’t that we hadn’t noticed until then. The fact that we were already married for five years and had yet to be blessed with children was rather hard to ignore. But the city had been…well… the city. I never knew whether the couple across the hall had two kids or five, or whether the noise over our heads came from a dozen kids under the age of ten or teenage boarders who liked to party. On the yishuv, by contrast, I knew for a fact that of the 278 families living there, we were the only ones without a child. And just in case I wanted to forget, the reminders were constant: In response to my friendly greetings, my new neighbors would immediately inquire “ages and grades,” wanting to know at the outset which of their own children could play with mine. My warm “good mornings” stopped cold.

I set out to shul on our second week. The grandmother in the next chair complimented me on my apparent diligence. “How impressive to see a young mother at shul. What a good example you must set for your children.” The following week I davened at home. The local playground loomed teasingly just a few houses down – at once so near and yet so far away. I started taking the long way up to the bus stop.

Two months after we arrived, the English-speakers’ email list announced the first-ever “women’s get-to-know-you” evening, designed to give all of us newcomers a chance to make friends. Finally, here was an opportunity to meet people that didn’t depend on one’s kids. I literally counted down the days until the big night arrived. I took my place and expectantly looked around at all the other people who would shortly become my friends. The organizer announced that we would go around and give each person a chance to introduce herself. I immediately began mentally planning my introductory speech; after all, I wanted to make a good first impression.

“My name is Esther,” the first woman began, “I moved from Monsey three months ago with my husband and four children, aged 2, 4, 6, and 8.” Linda was the next to speak: she was from Baltimore, had just had a baby, her third child, and celebrated her eldest’s fifth birthday. And she was an accountant.

I was starting to sense a pattern. Apparently, “introducing yourself” meant listing your offspring. With growing uneasiness, I calculated how much longer it would be until my turn. The woman two seats away had just finished holding up a picture of her happy family of seven. I mumbled something about a burner left on – and ran. My poor husband was at a loss as to why his wife had returned from the much-anticipated party weeping. I, in turn, had to force myself to go to the next get-together. I was determined not to let my self-consciousness imprison me inside my very lovely home. Instead, I would go out and mingle − and feel part of everyone around me. In this I rarely succeeded.

My neighbors couldn’t win. A Shabbos invitation meant they felt sorry for me. When no one invited us, I assumed that without kids we didn’t rate as desirable company. People who included me in conversation must pity me, and the range of topics in which I couldn’t join was a relentless reminder of my “difference.” I yearned for the anonymity and heterogeneity of the city. Sometimes I even yearned to return “home” – back to New York, where, I conjectured, the sense of belonging in my family would compensate for constantly feeling apart from my community.

In calmer moments I realized that my neighbors couldn’t possibly do the right thing – because I myself wasn’t sure what the right thing was. Sometimes I wished that someone – anyone – would notice me standing by the sidelines at the kiddush and, realizing how left out I felt, come over to sympathize. Other times I prayed to be treated just like everyone else. I wished for conversations in which I could participate, but on the flip side, dreaded the self-conscious sense when others felt compelled to change the topic because of my presence.

On our first Simchas Torah, I insisted on going to shul. My husband didn’t have a choice, I reasoned, so why should I get to take the easy way out and stay home? Standing crowded amongst – yet miles away – from the other women, watching them watch their children dance, engendered a sense of pain that rose above the noise of the hakafos and threatened to engulf me entirely. I turned to leave. A neighbor tapped me on the shoulder. “Next year, b’ezras Hashem, yours will be dancing there too.” Then she was gone. I stayed.

That summer marked two years since our move. In July, fifteen families in the neighborhood celebrated a new arrival. Our English-speaking women’s email list, already known as a ceaseless conduit for chesed and good-deed-doing, nearly exploded from the volume of communication as two-weeks’-worth of meals were arranged for each newly-expanded family. Our home was busy, too. We were traveling into Yerushalayim every other day for blood tests and ultrasounds, learning how to inject medications and trying to understand the small print on strange drugs. It was our first attempt at a new procedure for infertility.

The night before one segment of the procedure, we were walking home through the balmy night when I suddenly burst into tears.

“What can I do for you?” my concerned husband pleaded. “Anything to make you feel better.”

“I want… someone… to make me a meal,” I blurted out between sobs.

“A meal,” he repeated, more calmly, glad to have something concrete to do. “No problem, what kind? I’ll buy you any meal you like.”

“I want a tuna sandwich…”

He was relieved. “No problem – I’m on the case!”

A fresh burst of sobs was the only response. “I don’t want you to buy it for me,” I finally explained. “I want someone to make a tuna sandwich for me.”

“But how can anyone prepare a meal for you,” he asked, all too reasonably, “when no one knows what you’re going through?”

His logic was wasted on me just then. But his words hid in the crevices of my memory where they gradually did induce a tectonic shift in my thinking. So it was that several procedures later I did something radical: I shared what we were going through with a neighbor. Three of them – to be precise. One had waited fourteen years to have a child; the other had eight children, yet always seemed to know the right thing to say; the third never asked me questions I couldn’t answer.

Now my weeks of medical appointments were interjected with constant calls, visits and little “pick-me-up” gifts. On the day of another procedure, one of the three husbands volunteered to pick us from the fertility clinic an hour away. As he drove us home from our physically and emotionally enervating day, my husband dozed, but I was too pumped with adrenaline (or the wearing off of anesthesia) to sleep. I half-noticed our driver speaking softly into his phone. As we reached the entrance to the yishuv he got on the phone again. We pulled up in front of our house – where our other neighbor, father of eight, stood on our doorstep. He handed me a package. The label read, “Soup, lasagna, chocolate cake, with all our love.” It was hot, fresh and just-out-of-the-oven.

“What is this?” I asked.

My neighbor, who had just devoted three hours to bringing us home, smiled. “We wanted you to have your homemade tuna sandwich.” For the first time that day, I wept.

Nine months later – and eight years to the day my husband and I had gotten engaged – I held my baby girl in my arms for the first time. My daughter. I stared down in awe at the tiny human being who had made me a mother – and I was finally at peace. It was the second day of Sukkos and I knew immediately that I wanted my Sukkos baby to be named on her Yom Tov, with the day of Hoshana Rabba as my ideal time. Five days later, in the presence of family and friends, the Rav announced my baby’s name. My father, hearing his mother’s name bestowed upon his long-awaited granddaughter, wept. My husband, who had chosen the name, smiled.

My mother, sisters and I headed down to the immense communal sukkah in which our daughter’s kiddush had been elegantly laid out by my neighbors. I approached the sukkah and paused. There was no room. The entire yishuv population, from what I could see, was squeezing themselves inside that sukkah, to celebrate the birth of my little girl.

Despite the crowd, silence reigned as I spoke, explaining our daughter’s name, “Et-elle Emunah.” In addition to being a Hebrew form of her paternal grandmothers’ names, “Ethel” and “Erma,” her name could also be translated both as “a time for faith in Hashem” – a concept that resonated with every individual who had ever had to wait for their prayers to be answered in the right time – and “a time for Hashem’s faith in us,” referring, I explained, to the moment when Hashem chooses to place his faith on us and give us the gift that makes us parents.

My daughter had become a star. Cars would stop short alongside me as I pushed her in her carriage (Me! Pushing a baby carriage down the street). The mayor, the security chief, the rebbetzin – everyone was constantly asking how she was. Invitations to simchas included a special “Of course Etelle is also invited,” notation. Yes, my daughter had become a celebrity – and I had arrived. I finally belonged!

Two years have now passed. The euphoria has faded, to be replaced by reality. It’s a voyage of discovery in which I have found out first-hand how wondrous it is to watch a child’s mind at work. I discerned, too, that I cherish aspects of motherhood other parents seem not even to notice: The excitement of Gan pick-up time (that call of “My Ima!” is directed at me!); her school birthday party (We showed up with both camera and camcorder in tow.); tiny dresses hanging out to dry. (“Who knew wet laundry could be such a source of nachas?” my husband commented.)

On this voyage of exploration, I’ve discovered, too, that my heart is still fit enough to turn a few near-perfect cartwheels at the sight of my neighbor’s newborn, as my daughter keeps growing (I’m not jealous, I’m just…); that while I now have my own chevrah to schmooze with at the park, they still discuss homework, PTA and sleepovers – issues I cannot yet contribute to.

And, slowly, it dawned on me that having crossed the bridge from infertility to motherhood didn’t guarantee me a free entry into society. I have to enter at my own free will and realize that I don’t have to fit the mold to be there.

If I choose to compare myself and focus on catching up to others, I will constantly be chasing the elusive “ideal life” I had envisioned. There’s no point in pushing time, in trying to achieve a milestone, because life is not a race. While we have no control over our destiny, we do have control on how we handle it.

The best gift I could’ve given myself is to realize that there’s no magic wand to happiness or belonging. The power is within me, and in no way contingent on external circumstances.

Reprinted with permission from Shaarei Tikvah, a publication of ATIME. Visit ATIME on the web at www.atime.org

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“I just know you are going to love it here…” the sugary voice of the real estate agent broke through my daydream in which our future house featured prominently. “This yishuv is known for its warm and friendly atmosphere; there are several shuls to choose from; you’ll never find a house at this price so close to Yerushalayim; and the schools are some of the best in the country.”

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Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/potpourri/a-sense-of-belonging-2/2012/02/09/

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