A friend of mine is an essential grocery store worker. Her colleagues are a mix of international newcomers, along with a sampling of Canadian-born workers. This Canadian friend’s favourite colleagues are often the immigrants from elsewhere, who are trying hard to be kind and helpful to one another. The most difficult ones, often those born in Canada, she describes as the “mean girls.” It’s the kind of exclusionary, popular crowd many of us faced in middle or high school … not a fun work environment.
I tried to be comforting about the upcoming shift with the mean girls, but I have faced some of this myself. I’d pushed it to the back of my mind but now I wondered, was I also battling the sad adolescent feelings of being excluded or harassed by the in-crowd?
Like most of us during the pandemic, I’ve felt moments of isolation and loneliness and, as a parent, being overwhelmed. One warm morning, while walking the dog and twins (because, while I may feel lonely, as a mom these days, I’m rarely alone!), we saw that a neighbour had left out items to be picked up by a charity. On the walkway was a Singer treadle sewing machine. I just about swooned – as did my kids. They saw a summer sewing rehab project. We returned home and went out on the familiar route with our red wagon so the kids could play. We rang the doorbell to ask about the sewing machine, but got no answer. We wondered if the neighbours were home, so we walked around to the back lane. We faced only a big garage.
Next to this house was another friendly, older neighbour’s home with an apple tree. We often pick up the fallen apples, and pick the tree, making apple chips and sauce. We give the neighbour homemade applesauce and donate the rest to the foodbank. We paused, examining the tree (few apples this year due to frost and drought) and discussing it.
Suddenly, an expensive car came out of the garage behind us. We asked about the sewing machine. The woman told us disdainfully that she was already late for an appointment. She told me it would cost me $200 cash (but she was giving it away to charity?) when I offered the $60 in my pocket. She drove off in a pique. I felt shame – but my kids, while disappointed, raced up the sidewalk with the wagon. We played instead, while I hatched a plan.
In the meantime, I saw a social media announcement. Invitations had been sent to a new private Jewish women’s professional networking group to which I’d applied. “Hurray!” The announcement touted, “You were all accepted, check your email!” Except, when I checked – and re-checked – my email, I hadn’t gotten any acceptance email. Maybe there was a snafu? Nope. I wasn’t invited. Another thing where I wasn’t actually eligible for the cool club.
What’s the Jewish lesson in all this?
On one hand, we’re all part of a big family, starting with Avraham Avinu, or Abraham, our father, as my kids learn in school. We’re meant to look out for one another, supporting, networking and treating one another with love.
On the other hand, there’s this situation I just read in Tractate Sukkah, on page 38a, where the rabbis question what it means if a Jewish man cannot read and a Canaanite slave, a woman, or a minor was reciting Hallel (prayers of thanksgiving done on festivals) on his behalf. The man must repeat every word to make it valid. Then the Mishnah says, “And may a curse come to him” (for being so ignorant) and the Gemara clarifies, explaining that a son can recite for his father, a slave can recite for his master and a woman may recite a blessing on behalf of her husband, but “the sages said: ‘May a curse come to a man who, due to his ignorance, requires his wife and children to recite a blessing on his behalf.’”
Here we are again! There’s a message of belonging and obligation, as well as an opportunity to shame, curse or embarrass someone who might have less knowledge or power. Is this the Jewish way to behave?
I returned again to this because, well, I’m still wandering the neighbourhood with my kids. It’s still lonely, but, today, we had a triumph.
I remembered which charity picked up the Singer sewing machine. Winnipeg isn’t such a big place. I sent them an email, describing where and when it was picked up. Lo and behold, they tracked down the neighbour’s discarded sewing machine, which they tested. It worked perfectly. We went to the downtown nonprofit’s shop. It took me several tries to find the person I’d been emailing, but, when I did, she rolled out the truly fine antique sewing machine in its wooden cabinet. She showed it off to me.
I happily paid $150 to support the charity’s work to claim it. The loading dock workers joked to my husband. They found these all the time! If I wanted more, they’d love to help!
This journey took the sewing machine back home, just a block away from where it used to live. But I can’t rewind time to fix that uncomfortable interaction with the neighbour. I can’t erase the mean girl experiences in my friend’s work life or magically get accepted into the “very best” Jewish networking circles. However, I can turn these experiences upside down.
The sewing machine incident offered an opportunity to use my research skills and donate to a good cause. My friend found solace, during her cashier shift, in the other employees, who acknowledged what was happening and cheered her on. She got a chance to hug a cancer-survivor friend during the shift. Last but not least, another butcher colleague alerted her that some steak was going on sale so she could afford to buy it to feed her teenagers.
It’s true that our rabbinic tradition acknowledges curses as commonplace and shaming as acceptable. Yet, when we make amends this year and pray for a good 5782, we can try to turn that message on its head. We’re all children of Abraham. Let’s, as my friend suggested, “lay on the love,” kindness and inclusivity, even when there are prime insider opportunities to ostracize others.
Make a donation, network with newcomers or outsiders, and choose to treat others as beloved family.
Wishing you blessings and not curses! Wishing you a happy, healthy and meaningful new year, from my house to yours.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.