“Are you familiar with the TV series Shtisel?” I asked Ronit.
Uncharacteristically, she nodded. She didn’t ask me why I wanted to know, didn’t hesitate before giving me my answer. She had also given me an immediate “no” a few minutes before, when I asked her if the picture in her waiting room was new. It was a picture of a nanny holding out a cup for a child to drink from. I had never noticed it before, and it seemed strangely connected to what I wanted to tell her about Shtisel.
“Okay, so then you know the characters,” I said to her. “You know little Ruchami.”
Little Ruchami. I loved little Ruchami. The oldest of five children in an Ultraorthodox Jewish family – and the only girl – she broke my heart in a hundred different ways (spoiler alert; I’m about to reveal a plot point). After her father abandons the family, forcing her mother to enter the workplace, Ruchami can think of no better solution for quieting her baby brother than to “nurse” him. When her mother comes home from work and asks her how the day went, Ruchami tells her it went much better than previous days because she came up with a successful sheetah. When she confesses the details of it, the mother is horrified and tells her she must never carry out this “strategy” again.
“Her mother was very firm about it,” I said to Ronit. “But in a caring way. I mean, you felt that she loved Ruchami, and because she loved her she forbade her from doing something . . . forbidden.”
Without batting an eye, Ronit said, “So if I were like that mother, I would forbid you from writing the blog.” And then, after a beat, she added: “Your sheetah.”
Wow. I was such a literal person, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Ronit might go this route. I thought we’d end up talking about my family, about my parents, about when being strict with your children was a way of showing love. My mother had not been very strict with me (as I, alas, was not very strict with my own kids). One time when I was in junior high I found out that my Hebrew school teacher had been calling home on occasion to report my truancy. Later, when I asked my mother why she’d never mentioned it, she said, “You were always such a good girl, I figured I’d let it go.”
After some silence, Ronit said. “Why do you suppose you asked me whether I was familiar with Shtisel?”
I shrugged, but there was something about her tone that bothered me. “You sound like Ruchami’s mother,” I said. “You sound like you disapprove of my having asked you.”
Ronit shook her head. “Not at all,” she said.
“It was just easier,” I said. “Easier than having to start explaining what the whole show is about: the religious Jerusalem family, the father, the mother, blah blah blah. It was just a shortcut.”
Ronit said nothing but seemed unconvinced.
“And the reason I thought you’d be familiar with it is because I first heard of it here, in Tel Aviv. You know that billboard, where the bus exits the ramp at Arlozorov and comes around the bend? That’s where I saw the ad. I remember thinking it was ironic that my introduction to a TV program about Ultraorthodox Jews would take place in Tel Aviv.”
“The city of sin?” Ronit suggested. “As opposed to the holy city?”
I smiled. These were my designations, of course.
Ronit said, “I’m wondering whether asking me if I watch this show – if I know this show – was more than just a shortcut. Whether it was also a way for you to feel you weren’t alone in your experience of the mother and her daughter.”
An interesting theory, particularly as within a few minutes of her making this comment, she said something that made me feel very much alone indeed: she interpreted a dream of mine to mean that I was feeling much less dependent on her now than I had in the past, and then promptly informed me of a two-week vacation she would soon be taking. In the moment, I couldn’t make sense of what had happened – though the phrase “stinking maneuver” came to mind – so I left early, in a huff. Later, at home, I worked myself up even more, accusing her in my head of having tried to pull off the classic guilty mother ploy: i.e., alleviating her own guilt about going out for the night by telling the child that she will be just fine. Whatever it was, the interpretation felt self-serving: a dishonest, expedient use of my dream. Ronit herself must have had similar qualms, because that evening, for the first time ever, she called me, unsolicited, to see how I was feeling.
“I still think the interpretation of the dream was a good one,” she said after I told her what I thought. “But the timing – I agree that the timing was bad.”
It didn’t really matter what she said. I was so appreciative of the fact that she had called, essentially to apologize and make sure I was still on board, that I was ready to forgive all. By doing so, she had conveyed to me in a more meaningful way than ever before that the giver also receives. She got something from me, in addition to a paycheck, and whatever this something was, she wasn’t ready to give it up.
The giver also receives was a concept that was beginning to work its way into my relationship with Fania as well, the Holocaust survivor I had been visiting for years. As my visits to her had become more and more challenging, mostly due to her inability to hear, I too – at the suggestion of a friend/fellow volunteer – had also introduced a new sheetah: the massage, an activity blessedly free of verbal communication. At a certain point during the hour, usually after Fania said to me, “How was your husband’s trip to France?” and I said to her, “He didn’t go to France,” and she said to me, “He’s not back yet?” I’d mime the act of rubbing her shoulders, and the game was on. She loved it, and I could feel her back, upper arms and neck relax under my touch. “Azeh yoffie,” she would say.
Then one day Fania said she wanted to reciprocate. She told me that she was an expert at massaging hands.
“Oh no,” I said. “That’s okay.” But she insisted, indicating that it was bad enough that I never accepted her offers of food and drink, I could at least accept this. So, after a few more refusals, I finally relented, sat down across from her and gave her my hands. At first I saw this as something I had to do; it was bad manners to never let her give me anything. But then things changed. I found myself enjoying it, even looking forward to it. Carefully, as she took each finger and massaged it, from fingernail to knuckle, from pinky to thumb, from fingertip to wrist, I relaxed. I let her work, heard her breathing hard from the effort, gave myself over to her. Amazingly, she remembered the pinky finger on my right hand, how it had been partially severed when I was a baby, how no one was allowed to touch it.
I sat back. I let my mind wander. I took pleasure. One time I even saw that I had stayed past the required hour. Like Ronit, I had gone above and beyond the call of duty, because I wanted to.