Many years ago my husband and I were in the market for bookshelves that could hold our ever growing library of Jewish books. Our hand-me-down Ikea shelves had withstood many years, many moves, and being “base” in many rounds of hide-and-seek tag. The bowed, warped wood seemed to be silently beseeching me to put it out of its misery.
Off we went to a furniture store in suburban Ohio that boasted top quality, custom woodwork.
“We have a lot of books,” we told the saleswoman. “Not novels, more like text books, tomes if you will, big, heavy, volumes. We need wide shelves that can hold a lot of weight.”
She assured us that shelves purchased from this establishment were up to the task. So we handed her our credit card, and the new shelves arrived several weeks later.
As the delivery men unwrapped and properly positioned the new bookshelves, one of them sauntered over to the table where stacks and stacks of books were waiting to be arranged in their new home. He opened up a Chumash.
“What is this?” he asked.
“That’s the Bible,” I told him. “It’s written in Hebrew.”
He picked up a volume of Shas (Talmud). “And what’s this one?”
“That’s a book of Jewish law. The Bible tells us the laws, but the rest of these books explain how exactly to keep the laws.”
He seemed puzzled.
“I’m Christian. I spend a lot of time in church. But the only law I really know is, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ I don’t need hundreds of books to explain that to me.”
“I get it,” I said. “But Jews don’t like to keep things simple. If we were told to turn the other cheek, we would write books that described how precisely to turn the cheek. Should it be turned from right to left, or from left to right? And how quickly should we be turning it?”
“Imagine that,” he said, as I held myself back from wondering aloud if one might be required to turn the cheek of one’s ox who had fallen into a neighbor’s open pit, and whether women and children would also be obligated in cheek-turning.
A year later, the shelves started to break. We had not adequately conveyed the size and weight of our library on that fateful day in the furniture store. We had them repaired after their long journey on the lift we sent to Israel, but the time has clearly come for them to go the way of their Ikea predecessors.
We need new bookshelves, and the space we have for them is a bit unusual, so we called a local carpenter to discuss the possibility of designing something for us.
We began to describe what we needed, “We have a lot of books — not novels, more like text books….”
“Achi!” (Dude!), he interrupted, “just tell me, how big is your Shas?”
We have come a long way from suburban Ohio.
This reminded me of when I went shopping in Jerusalem for a dress for my son’s bar mitzvah. With the help of a wonderful saleswoman, I found something that I really liked. As we stood side by side in front of the mirror, she nodded her approval and said. “You go change, and I’ll start looking for a mitpachat (headscarf) to match.”
No one at Nordstrom Rack ever offered me such a service. It’s nice to be among my people.
While in grad school in middle America, I was once asked to bring a note from my rabbi verifying that Sukkot was an actual holiday and not merely an excuse to get out of an assignment (as if it can’t be both!). Here, the HR department is about to publish the gloriously long list of days that the office will be closed throughout the month of Tishrei.
But before I get overly sentimental about these “Only in Israel” moments, I have to be honest in pointing out that the reason we immigrants notice and mention these moments so often is that they bolster our spirits when life here is inevitably challenging. Like during August, when the kids are so completely over every kind of entertainment that is not YouTube, and the heat feels like it is personally punishing me for looking wistfully at my favorite sweater tucked away in the closet, and parents throughout the country anxiously wait for news of whether the kids will go back to school on September 1st or if a teachers strike will render YouTube their primary source of information for an ever extending period of time.
It’s so nice to be reminded that I fit here because I spend so much time not fitting. I haven’t yet figured out how to shine in Hebrew — I make fewer jokes, I don’t strike up conversations with strangers quite as frequently. And a few weeks ago, I couldn’t even sing along in my own car when my kids’ entire road-trip playlist was composed of Israeli artists of whom I had never heard. I was overcome by alternating waves of emotion — deep gratitude that my kids are so much more integrated and at ease here than I will ever be, and blinding rage that Omer Adam and Ravid Plotnik don’t sound more like ’90s rock.
So I will revel in the times when I am fully understood and accepted, and I will persevere in this weird in-between of both belonging and being an outsider.
And when things get rough I will simply turn the other cheek. Shammai argues right to left, but Hillel says left to right.