Thursday, May 3, 2012

Birthdays, Valentine's Day, and Competitive Sports: What I Learned in Buffalo Grove, Illinois

Total immersion - moving from Jerusalem to Buffalo Grove, Illinois:  from almost complete Orthodox social insularity to very heterogeneous Jewish suburbia.

My husband had accepted his first pulpit position in a small outreach congregation, and I was about to learn everything there was to know about the Jews in the 'burbs.  For the purpose of this post, I will refer to my fellow Jews that I met as HSJs (heterogeneous suburban Jews).  This means they were not Orthodox, not urban, basically raising young families and sending their kids to (the excellent local) public schools.  Some considered themselves Reform, some secular or unaffiliated, some of Orthodox sympathies but not observant quite to that degree, and some Conservative.

I enjoyed meeting these families so much, and they were patient and loving as I figured out what on earth I was doing (at the tender young age of 23).  I learned much about them, and them about me.  So what follows is hardly a judgment call, but simply my learning curve.

Here were the surprises:

1.  HSJs are very big on birthdays.

Now, I am too.  But just because it's my kid's birthday, or even my husband's or mother's, doesn't mean I am going to stop the clock and ignore everyone else.  I found this devoted observance of birthdays surprising and interesting.  Growing up, my mother always acknowledged our birthdays with a cake on the Friday night preceding or following our Hebrew birthday, or English.  Depending on which came first.  Or what else was going on.  Occasionally a friend would have party, at home.  With homemade cake usually, or something at the local kosher pizza place.

So when people told me they couldn't come to an event or class because it was someone's birthday, I couldn't really wrap my brain around it.

Here's why I think:  

In the Orthodox world, people have a lot of kids.  And people get married young and have more kids.  This means a lot of cousins, neighbors and occasions.  For example, in my extended family and community, about once a week, if not more, there is an occasion of some sort: bar/bat mitzvah, upsherin (first haircut for a 3-year-old boy), siyum (celebration of completion of a part of Talmud), wedding, sheva brachos (week-long celebration following the wedding), Jewish holiday, and on and on.

Birthdays, frankly, paled in comparison.

2. HSJs celebrate Valentine's Day.

This was a shocker to me.  We couldn't plan an event on Valentine's?  Really?  For Jews?  Wasn't St. Valentine, um, a saint?

Here's why I think:

Hallmark wins on this one, guys.  It's succeeded in convincing us that this is not a religious thing, but a moral obligation for all husbands.  Jewish guys are menschen, right?  So they do the flowers, wine, and chocolate.  Everyone forgot about the St. and is just trying to stay out of trouble.

3. HSJs live in the car shuffling their kids to sports events and then watch their kids at those events. 

My siblings and I were into extra-curricular stuff.  But it looked really different from what I saw in BG.  I was in the drama group at school, my brothers played football on the front lawn every Sunday, and I took Red Cross first aid and babysitting through my school.  My parents never watched us do those things, and I would never have expected them to.

Here's why I think:

I think this one just boils down to not only having a lot of kids, but being a part of a community where lots of people have a lot of kids.  Therefore, the soccer mom model is simply not sustainable: not time-wise, and not financially.  Expectations are radically different.  I used to not get that when people said "How do you manage?" they were thinking of ALL. THAT. DRIVING.

I have enough driving with school carpools, going to friends, and household errands.  I could never manage more.  Thankfully, no one expect me to, because our community is just not structured that way.

4.  Finally, HSJs were extraordinarily touched that we had chosen to live in their community.

I had wondered if anyone would wonder why the riffraff was moving in, but we received such a wonderfully warm welcome.  Time and again we were asked if it was hard for us, living away from family, far from the day school, and not in an eruv.

They offered to help with my kids and bring us something kosher from the local bakery, and were thrilled for us when a kosher deli opened in town.

And this, for me, was the best surprise.

Have you ever been in a situation where you learned a lot about a different type of Jew?



  1. I would say 2 years in Jerusalem, followed 3 years later by 4 years in Monsey was quite the education :)

    1. Um yeah! Total immersion, all right.

    2. On just about every level one could think of :D

  2. When I was a senior in high school, I took part in Panim el Panim, a trip from Cleveland to DC for area Jewish teens. As a Reform Jew, I was joined by Orthodox teens, Conservative teens, and even a few who barely identified as Jewish but whose parents "encouraged" them to participate. The bus ride to and from DC alone was worth the trip. I have never spent time with Orthodox peers...people who were the same age and same religion but who's experiences were different than my own in so many ways. More than 20 years later I still talk to people about my experience that weekend. And now I work at a Jewish agency where many on staff are not Jewish but some are Orthodox. My curiousity and learning continue. I feel so fortunate to have these experiences...kind of an in-person OOTOB.

    1. So cool. Reminds of the trips to Israel I've been taking with the Jewish Women's Renaissance Project. I wish more people would have the opportunity to interact that way.

  3. as a convert all of my experiences are like this on a regular basis. There is nothing about any part of Orthodox Judaism that is "familiar" to me. I have sorta just gotten used to always being out of my realm and I learn a lot by my experiences. Luckily I live in a really diverse community so I get to hang out with all types and sects. I really enjoy it!

    1. Flying by the seats of our pants! It's humbling.

  4. Ruchi, that must have been an incredibly difficult adjustment for your family. I am always so thankful and impressed by the many many scarifies that Orthodox families who do Kiruv work must make. I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn from some of these families (mainly through Shabbos meals, and answering my many questions etc.). It's really great to hear from your perspective what you learned from these families. I always thought it was just the non-observant learning from the observant and not the other way around. Thanks for opening my eyes!

    1. Trust me, I learned a lot more from my HSJ friends than about birthdays and Valentine's. I learned courage, a pioneering spirit, humility and faith.

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