Jewish Women and Me

jewsihwomenandme

Once I stopped searching for friends, I made peace with both the isolation of mothering and exclusion.

by Lois Greene Stone

Sometimes, the word friendship seems to be just a noun rather than an indication of a relationship. I so wanted that word to convey a special kinship and not to be simply a meaningless term.

I once enjoyed pushing a baby carriage on concrete sidewalks, sitting on a park bench with other mothers for as long or as short a period of time as I chose. When my husband had completed his four additional residency years after earning his medical degree, plus the then-mandatory serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, he was offered a university position to train medical students, a job which forced our relocation 400 miles northwest of my New York-area childhood. This town didn’t have sidewalks or meeting-place schoolyards. The house we rented was not part of a ‘neighborhood,’ and 3,000 acres of dairy farm was all I could see from the front windows. I felt isolated.

Car horns honked, showing drivers’ irritation as, in the street, I pushed a carriage holding my third baby while my other two rode their tricycles in front of me. Eventually, I gave up. I needed my mother’s hugs, companionship, positive strokes, but she lived in California.

Time slipped along with sewing, domestic chores, baby’s needs, writing, crafts, playing the piano, but I wanted some adult sharing. My husband suggested I attend one of the evening Jewish women’s groups. A rabbi’s wife, older than me, but also a displaced New Yorker who knew the difficulty of breaking into cliques of women who’d been together since kindergarten, gave me the names of two local Jewish women’s organizations. Changing out of mommy clothes, I went to a meeting. I’d carefully selected a skirt, blouse, medium-heel pumps; the others were in jeans, sneakers, sweatshirts. City upbringing seemed emblazoned on my forehead.

Imagining a cerebral evening, its reality was a gripe session about spouses, fatigue, monotony, dirty diapers, crying children, one-upmanship with my-baby-is-toilet-trained-before-yours. I wanted to be involved, and so I offered to give talks, to do research on women and Judaism, the differences/similarities between the orthodox-conservative-reform movements, or any other topic. The leader said okay, then moved from me to the women she’d known since childhood, and they chatted together as if linked.

Could I create a sense of community in an area that considered me an outsider and offered little chance for me to participate in sharing?

Although my husband and I joined a reform synagogue, no sisterhood sent me any welcome. I attended meetings of that first-selected Jewish women’s organization, gave my informative talks that I enjoyed researching and then putting into conversational tone, answered any questions, and then went home before the social segment began. No one tried to stop me from leaving.

I called the second organization that had been suggested. It concerned itself with Jewish vocational education and helping Jews find trades. I liked the idea of giving time and money to a practical purpose, and imagined refugees actually finding work through this group. I’m a writer and artist and volunteered to write/illustrate/edit a journal, and the president gave me the first meeting date. I became the talented ‘outsider’ who was called on for a project but not for much else. These women had also gone through high school together, and while many had university degrees, they seemed locked in teenage mode. Before baby #1, I’d taught high school and recognized they were frozen in that kind of identity. I didn’t fit in anywhere.

A realtor was helping me find a house; he was Jewish, and he and his wife were originally from the Bronx. It turned out she lived within walking distance on a no-sidewalk street. I was actually excited about the possibility of a friendship, and she also had three small children. We made a plan to get together at her home.

Toddler stage was a challenge. I knew, from having buried my father when I had just turned 20, that ‘things’ were unimportant. Dirt can be vacuumed up, fingerprints washed or painted away, crumbs brushed off. But when I visited my potential-friend’s house, she asked that I remove both my and my toddler’s shoes in order to keep her carpet clean. I couldn’t give him a cookie except outside, and was told I’d have to hold him on my lap if he needed juice.

I wondered, had she also been a B’nai B’rith Girl and traveled by boat up the Hudson River on teen B’nai B’rith outings? Could I convey my thoughts about Yizkor, discuss the anti-Zionism comments made by a powerful figure in the UN, or share how I felt about paying dues to a synagogue, but not being comfortable there as I had with my childhood one 400 miles away? No; I was too focused on trying to keep her place ultra-clean.

I wanted to say rooms are meant to be lived in and used, quiet children were usually sick ones, and gleeful noise always made me smile. Why wasn’t she bothered by the hairs her dog shed or the occasional stool that pet left on carpet nap, but my shoes were forbidden? She’d never had to stand for Yizkor; did that make a difference?

When my younger son shredded newspapers in my living room, it filled half an hour of his time, yet only took me six minutes to clean up. When he was busy with such activities, I propped a portable typewriter on a footstool and typed manuscripts. An editor of a monthly Jewish magazine challenged me to write Jewish children’s short stories; I smiled as this was a new area for me, and I was successful. I could do this satisfying work alone. My son ran around my footstool enjoying the clacking of the typing keys.

For four years, we rented the house across from 3,000 acres of dairy farm, then moved to a nearby, mostly-farmland town where building was affordable. We selected an acre on an undeveloped street, but as houses were eventually constructed, and neighbors came, they preferred privacy on their large parcels of land. I created a community within myself.

Once I stopped searching, I made peace with both the isolation of mothering and exclusion. I turned these into a positive self-definition. So we shared, only as family, Passover seders and such, but knew for the eventual bar mitzvahs our out-of-town relatives would come.

Along with becoming a widely published writer, I taught college English composition once my offspring were grown. They all married under chuppahs and are raising Jewish children. So, decades later, the word friendship, here, is still a noun and not a term that connotes a relationship. I share my Jewish philosophy and Jewish opinions with my mate and immediate family. And in the quiet of lighting shabbos candles, done alone, I still realize that what I needed when I moved from family and a familiar city, I never found. I did, however, find myself. Perhaps that was destined all the time.

About the Author

Lois Greene Stone
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Her poetry and personal essays have been included in hardcover and paperback book anthologies. Collections of her personal items, photos, and memorabilia can be found in major museums, including 12 different divisions of the Smithsonian.

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