Wednesday, February 20, 2008

ma pitom! (1)

'Ma Pitom?!', and other inscrutable Israeli expressions

One of the [many] things I enjoy about my job is that it affords me the opportunity to interact with Israelis from all parts of our rich national/cultural tapestry. The people with whom I work are secular, observant, traditional, leftist, rightist, sepharidim, ashkenazim, edot hamizrach (eastern communities)... you name it!
Unlike in the US where religion and politics are taboo... people here are not shy about sharing their religious and political views at the drop of a hat. And the absolute conviction with which they hold forth on these topics is something one has to see/hear to appreciate. It's not enough that they are correct... but everyone else must be portrayed as so criminally wrong as to defy rational logic.
A woman with whom I frequently eat lunch perfectly fits this template of the smug, self-assured Israeli... certain beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt that every one of her long-held convictions is like Torah from Sinai.
She can best be described as follows:
Polish (meaning her parents immigrated from that country after the war. The stereotypical Polish-Israeli woman has a reputation for being extremely direct, pushy and opinionated. I can't say this is true for the entire species... but this example certainly bears that out.)
Secular (meaning she thinks religious people are mildly disturbed)
Traditional (meaning she is deeply invested in many aspects of Jewish culture and sees the holidays as extremely important to family and society at large. She sees no conflict between this and her view of religious people)
Left-of-center (meaning she's a life-long labor voter, but admits to using her vote to block right wing platforms she thinks will give the religious too much power over the rest of the country rather than out of any love for the agenda of the left).
Dyed (meaning her coif has been colored so many times in so many different hues that I don't think that even she remembers the original color of her hair)
I mention her because she approached me - quite reluctantly - a few months ago, before the 'High Holidays' for a chat. She broached the subject on her mind in such a casual, off-hand manner that it was obvious to me that she had been carefully planning her opening for hours... if not days.
"David", she began in her smoke-tinged Hebrew, "your parents aren't religious, are they?"
We'd had this conversation on more than one occasion, so I couldn't imagine where she was going with this. I answered in the affirmative and waited for her to let me know what was really on her mind.
"I see that you have a good relationship with them... I mean, after all... they come to visit you all the time, right?"
I admitted this much but assured her that it probably had more to do with my kids than with me. This seemed to strike a nerve, and for several minutes this woman sat and contemplated how much it was safe to share.
"You know I'm a grandmother, don't you?"
I remembered seeing the pictures of her son and daughter-in-law's wedding all over her office... the dreadlocks (both)... the nose ring (her) and eyebrow piercing (him)... and the awkward angle of the pointy yarmulke on the groom's head under the Huppah.
I also remembered a year later when this tough-as-nails Polish-Israeli woman had come into the office and tearfully announced to everyone that her first grandchild had been born... and then promptly disappeared for two weeks to go help her daughter-in-law take care of the new arrival.
I looked at her as she waited for the answer to her question and said, "Of course I know you're a grandmother!" The sudden look of horror that crossed her face made me rush on "But I would never have known if you hadn't told me personally when the baby was born".
This seemed to put her mind slightly at ease... but she still seemed to be tip-toeing around a subject without knowing how to broach it.
As if suddenly making up her mind, she blurted "Do you ever go to your parent's house for dinner?"
"All the time", I answered.
"No, no, what do you do... you know... about the fact that they don't keep kosher?"
I went on to explain that my parents had made a decision on their own to learn about Kashrut and always had kosher dishes, utensils and pots & pans for when we came to visit. I also explained that we made certain 'allowances' for innocent mistakes that my parents habitually made since the Biblical commandment to 'honor one's parents' took clear precedence over the largely Rabbinic ordnances involved in keeping kosher. I explained that this didn't extend to eating non-kosher (treif) food... but if my dad accidentally used a dairy spoon to stir a pot of chicken soup, I kept my mouth shut... put the spoon aside for later 'kashering', and handed him the correct utensil.
Tears welled up against the sturdy dam of mascara around her eyes as she listened to me talk and I started to get a hint of what this might be about. As if to confirm my suspicions, she blurted out, "So why won't my son and his family come to my house for Shabbat?!"
I feigned surprise and asked "I don't understand, are your son and his wife religious"?
She answered "Yes, they became religious (Hozer b'tshuvah) shortly after they got married, and since then they haven't come to us for shabbat or any of the holidays." By now the tears were flowing freely, leaving dark tracks down her cheeks.
"Well", I ventured, "have you invited them?"
She looked at me as if I had asked the dumbest question in the world. "Ma Pitom! (no translation possible, but this is sort of a combination of 'what are you talking about?!' and 'Don't be silly!') I never invite any of my kids for shabbat or holidays... they just come. It's understood!"
I looked at this woman who was teetering between self-confident Sabra and abandoned Jewish mother/grandmother, and decided to get a little background before moving on.
"OK, let me ask you something. What was your reaction when you found out your son and his wife were becoming more religious?"
"Reaction?" she said. "What reaction? I told them they could go as crazy as they liked... just not to expect me to go crazy with them."
"Ahah!" I exclaimed, "Now we're getting somewhere. Put yourself in your son's shoes. He's just told his mother ... the mother that raised him to be a certain way... that he and his family are changing their whole way of life. It sounds like you reacted as if he had told you they were going off to live in an ashram."
Before she could even stop herself she answered "That I could accept!"
We sat looking at each other for a couple of minutes before I asked my next question.
"What do you usually do for Pesach? Do you make a big family seder?"
"Of course!" she replied. "What a question!"
"What about Rosh Hashannah and Sukkot... does the whole family get together?"
I could see she wanted to give me the same 'of course' answer, but instead she said, "So, what does that have to do with anything? We also get together on Hanukkah... and I always send the kids a basket of treats on Purim... so what? That has nothing to do with religion!"
I cut her off gently by holding up my hand, "Of course it does! For you, those holidays are cultural family observances. But these holidays wouldn't exist without their religious origins. All your son has done is take what you raised him with and gone looking for more. He hasn't rejected his parent's life-style, he's just gone looking for the explanation behind what you always did."
"So then why don't they come for Shabbat and the holidays?!" she blurted. The question came out as a sob, although I'm sure she was unaware of it.
I ignored the rawness of her outburst and said, "When I asked you before if you had ever invited them for shabbat or the holidays, you made me feel like it was a foolish question. But I have to tell you that I think that's why they haven't come. They changed the way they eat and the way they observe Shabbat and the holidays. You let them know you thought they were crazy... so they are probably just staying away as a way of avoiding a potential source of conflict."
"Let me ask you", I went on, "What would you do if they came for Shabbat and the holidays". Would you prepare the food so that they could feel comfortable eating it? "
"Ma Pitom! she responded. "All the food in my house is kosher!"
This caught me off guard. "You keep kosher?" I asked.
"Well, not with two sets of dishes like the fanatics, but all the food in my kitchen is kosher."
I thought this over. Of course, most food available in Israeli supermarkets is kosher... and you'd actually have to go looking for non-kosher food in most places. So I gently pointed out "Sure, all the food in your kitchen is kosher... but by the time it reaches the dining-room it isn't anymore. Don't you see that for the price of a few disposable aluminum pans and a couple of sets of cheap utensils you could have your son back?"
She thought about this for a few minutes before arriving at the obvious stumbling block.
"But they wouldn't trust me to do things correctly... I'm sure they wouldn't eat what I make."
I shook my head and said "They don't have to trust you. Invite them for shabbat and tell your daughter-in-law you need her help in the kitchen so everything will be OK for them. I guarantee you that not only will they come... but they will thank you for extending yourself and going out of your way."
Again she waved me off with a "Ma Pitom!", but this time I could see her objection was just for show... she was seriously thinking it over.
"Look", I said, "You have it easier than most people in your situation. You live in a mixed community with religious and non-religious people so there is a synagogue nearby. Really the only thing keeping your son and his family from joining you for Shabbat or the holidays is the food. Trust me... call your daughter-in-law and ask for her help."
Several months have gone by since that conversation took place and I didn't hear a thing. I didn't want to pry into a private family matter... and this woman didn't normally volunteer much about her private life. So that was that.
But the other day we were all sitting around waiting for a meeting to begin when several people started talking about their plans for Hanukkah. Without missing a beat this woman proudly mentioned to everyone present that her kids were coming to her house for Shabbat Hanukkah for latkes.
I didn't want to give anything away, but I had to ask. "All your kids?"
"Ma Pitom!" she snapped. "Where else would my children go for the holiday?"
Nobody else saw it... mostly because they weren't looking for it... but as the words left her mouth, her eyes twinkled and the corners of her lips turned up in a small smile that was meant just for me.
Ahem... Have you voted yet today?

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