About a month before Harry Chapin, the famed story writer/balladeer was killed in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway, I saw him in concert in Atlanta. A highlight of the show was his rendition of “Mail Order Annie,” a song about a man in the Far West who sends for a mail order wife to share his lonely, pioneering life. It is a beautiful lyric which expresses the nuanced adjustment that both husband and wife make to each other as they navigate a new relationship. A virtual stranger is now a spouse.
I thought of this song as I watched Sweet Land, the touching narrative of a mail order bride who comes from a foreign country to Minnesota to start life anew as the wife of a farmer. It is a microcosm of the American immigrant experience.
Inge arrives at her new home in 1920 to marry Olaf, a young Norwegian farmer. It is soon after World War I and Inge’s German ancestry and lack of proper immigration papers cause her to be to be viewed as an outcast by her new neighbors. The local minister even refuses to marry them. Until this problem can be resolved, Inge lives with the family of Olaf’s friend and neighbor. It is here where she learns English and the American way of doing things.
Over time, Olaf and Inge get to know one another and they do fall in love. Tested by the forces of nature, they labor relentlessly to withstand the elements and bring in their crop successfully without the aid of sophisticated machinery. At the end of a long day, they rest peacefully with the sense of a job well done and a mutual love and respect for each other.
Their acceptance by the community is not as simple. It is only when Olaf makes a magnanimous gesture to save a friend’s farm that the neighbors rally around to support him. Until that moment, he and his wife are outsiders.
Judaism is very sensitive to the plight of the outsider, the immigrant, the stranger in our midst. Indeed, the Bible refers to Jews as strangers living in a strange land when they were sojourning in Egypt. Experientially, historically, Jews know what it means to be unwelcome, and we are bidden not be guilty of treating others as pariahs. The Bible, in fact, mentions 36 times the exhortation to be kind to the stranger. That is more than the Bible speaks of loving God or keeping the Sabbath.
When I made aliyah, emigrated, to Israel almost four years ago, I had some initial difficulty making an adjustment to a new land. What made it manageable was the fact that many people were kind to me, helping me with all kinds of issues. So sensitive and caring were they that I was confused as to which synagogue to join since my friends belonged to many different ones. When I finally did become a member of a synagogue, a neighbor asked me why I chose that particular synagogue since it was not the closest to my home. Walking to synagogue generally leads one to choose the closest, yet I did not choose a house of worship based upon proximity. I told my neighbor that I chose the one where many congregants smiled at me. They made me feel at home and that made all the difference.
Sensitivity to strangers is a hallmark of the Jew. The Egyptian experience lay the groundwork for ingraining the attribute of kindness to strangers in our emotional DNA. A kind word, a smile, can brighten the day of those who are on the outside looking in.