I did not grow up a religious Jew, but for my entire adult life, I’ve been a member of the Orthodox world. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time in other people’s homes, with other people’s families; Orthodox life is built around the family, and Shabbat and holidays are desolate affairs if you’re by yourself.
Countless families and communities across the world have graciously opened their doors and tables to me. From the homes of close friends in my neighborhood to the home of an eccentric kabbalist-cum krav maga teacher in Israel, through the boisterous Chabad of Panama City and everywhere in between, every Shabbat and every holiday I’ve found a place amongst my generous fellow tribesmen and women.
I’ve never once been made to feel unwelcome. But I have also never forgotten that I am always a guest.
And while I pay my synagogue dues and give what I can to the communal institutions that have made me who I am today, and though I regularly host Shabbat and holiday meals of my own in my tiny apartment, there’s a little part of me that will always feel like a burden, a tiny voice in the back of my head telling me I’ve been given more than I can ever give in return.
It’s not a friendly voice. A child of divorce, I hate to need. I’ve been able to pack a dufflebag by rote in fifteen minutes flat since age eight. I have become a self-sufficient machine; my first word was not “mommy” or “daddy” but “cat.” I’m an introvert by nature, and at the end of the day, I live in my head much more than I do in the presence of others.
But the Orthodox Jewish world is no place for such singularity.
This point was driven home for me during a seminar course in college on religious leadership. Our first assignment was to tell the cohort a 10-minute narrative of our life and religious journey. When it came to her turn, a fellow Orthodox Jew from a wealthy coastal town who I’ll call Beth shared the story of a woman I’ll call Rebekah, a woman from her community who had no nearby Jewish family members of her own. Rebekah would come to Beth’s Orthodox home every Jewish holiday at the behest of her parents, who made room for this unmarried woman in their hearth.
When Beth was a child, she saw Rebekah’s visits as a burden; making space in the house, making space at the table, making space in the family for a virtual interloper during the pinnacle of family time seemed like a grand intrusion. But as Beth grew older, she realized that though it was never truly painless having her home opened to someone so different each and every holiday, she gained as much from Rebekah’s presence and unique persona as Rebekah did from her family’s hospitality.
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