Onnie Schiffmiller

It’s About Family

I am a product of the 1960s/70s Conservative branch of Judaism. My parents set a high standard for Jewish communal involvement, and our synagogue was my second home. Young girls in our community were permitted, even encouraged, to read from the Torah going all the way back to 1973. Summers were filled with Camp Ramah New England, and it was assumed that I would spend time in Israel before my senior year of high school. In our extended family, we were, ironically, the “Orthodox” family. In our extended family seders whose numbers topped 70, we were one of the few to demand that the dinner be kosher, but everyone agreed. My great aunts and uncles, and other family members complained about the additional costs, but the complaints were short-lived because we were family. You accommodate for family. Of course, being good 1960s Conservative Jews, my parents took us out to the Chinese restaurant for spareribs before repacking our Passover dishes, but we didn’t feel hypocritical in the least. It’s what we all did.

After my fateful summer in Israel, I decided that I would extend my kosher observance to outside the home. When I informed my grandmother of my gravitation to a more traditional adherence of Judaism, she responded by promising to buy her chicken at the kosher market when I came to visit. I was her granddaughter and while I don’t think my grandmother really understood my newfound observance, I was her granddaughter and that was that. Before continuing I will note that my grandmother did keep her promise. I thanked her and told her the chicken was so delicious. Could I have the recipe? “Yes”, she responded. “But Onnie, the most important step is cooking the chicken in butter. Not margarine.  Butter.” Oh well, it was a work in progress.

Fast forward 40 years and my commitment to Jewish learning, Zionism and living a more traditional Jewish life continues to this day. My immediate family is still “the most Orthodox” branch of the family. Now living in Israel we don’t get to see them as much as we like, but when we do get together, we enjoy each other’s company despite our different paths in life. Realistically, our family is not that unusual, certainly not by Israeli standards.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I spent a Shabbat in Jerusalem at a hotel that caters to Israelis. What does that mean? When you enter the lobby, instead of being greeted by soft lighting, gentle music and tourists patiently waiting in line to check in, you’re overwhelmed by children enjoying an impromptu soccer game in the lobby while their father, in a deep baritone, bellows, “Shula, where’s the 10% discount voucher? How could you forget it?” while Shula’s two brothers are towing a trolley filled with bottled water, containers of cut watermelon and bags of Bamba for a Shabbat afternoon spent by the hotel pool. Who cares if the sign says, “No Outside Food Allowed”. What fool would pay the prices at the bar side pool? Only a freier (pushover) would do that! We, too, spent the afternoon at the pool reading and just enjoying the scene. Shula, her husband and children are religious. She covers her hair and wears a modest beach robe. Her husband and boys each wear a kipa. But one uncle is tattooed from top to bottom and a cousin probably has 15 body piercings; both adornments not allowed in religious circles. Another cousin sports a string bikini and purple streaks in her hair. But, despite their differences, huge differences by religious standards, they spend the afternoon gabbing, arguing, laughing, shouting, eating an enjoying each other’s company. After Shabbat, some may head to a bar while others may attend a shiur (lecture on Jewish text). Their day-to-day lives will take them in different directions, but family is family and when they do get together, it’s not religious, secular or traditional. It’s who forgot the sunflower seeds and who remembered the floaties for the kids. This is my Israel.  This is the Israel I witness every day on the playground, at weddings and on national hiking trails. It’s the Israel I see in office meetings and in the gym. Kipot, wigs, body piercings and tattoos. There’s almost separation between us when we’re not thinking about it.

And that brings me to this upcoming Saturday night. This Saturday night marks the end of the fall holiday season. And like most things in this country, we mark occasions in a big way. In towns and cities throughout Israel, people will gather in town squares to dance with Torah scrolls and the accompaniment of live music. It’s a raucous, glorious end to the season with dancing and singing and the waving of Israeli flags. It will also mark the 40th week of protests over proposed judicial reform with people coming together, also in town squares, and also waving Israeli flags. As the weeks have worn on, the protests have become more polarizing, especially along religious lines. I’m not going to review my position on the protests, you all know it from my previous writings on the subject. But, despite my reticence to rehash what’s already been written, I feel compelled to remind myself that, when we’re not looking, we are all family. A growing, changing dynamic family. That afternoon sitting by the hotel pool reminded me that there isn’t “them” and “us”. When we’re not looking, there is only “we”. Whether we are dancing with Torah scrolls or peacefully protesting (despite the news, the overwhelming majority of protests are family-friendly respectful affairs), we should remember that next Shabbat, we might all be sitting around a pool sharing watermelon and arguing over which aunt really makes the best chicken soup.

I want to wish everyone a chag sameach!

Family hike in Israel
Photo credit: Onnie Schiffmiller
About the Author
Onnie Schiffmiller is a tour guide and the owner of Israel with Love. She made aliyah with her family from New York in 2003.
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