The dining room, Friday night at the Singles’ Shabbaton, buzzed with the potential of meeting one’s spouse. My friend Chaikie and I glanced around the room when a tall man with glasses walked by. I whispered to Chaikie, “He isn’t bad looking, but slightly above the age range, don’t you think?” She agreed.
The man sat next to our facilitator, Bracha, at our assigned table, a vivacious woman who turned out to be his wife. She had the best laugh and engaged the entire table creating a fun atmosphere in a potentially awkward experience. I did meet my husband that weekend, but David and I both know that I fell in love with Bracha first.
My collection of Jewish mothers began long before that Shabbaton, at the cusp of my becoming a baalas teshuvah. I left California for the East Coast after I graduated university. Though my mother was only a phone call away, I yearned for that in-person maternal interaction in my life. Consistently, in every community that I’ve lived in, I’ve found a woman fifteen years or more my senior to take on that surrogate role.
The first was my altruistic and loving rebbetzin in New Jersey, who made religious life seem doable and normal. When I moved to Boston for graduate school, Esti continued to show me the reins of frumkite in the first years of my journey. I had a seat at her family’s Shabbos table every Friday night, and if they were unavailable she found another family to host me. My first job after graduation sent me to the Miami Beach JCC, where I met my federation co-worker Goldie and received my first Shabbos meal invite. The original invite was followed by many more, our work relationship quickly transforming into a personal one. She loved her husband and children fiercely, and she demonstrated the dedication, time, and effort it took to raise bright, caring, sincerely frum children in a modern world. When I ultimately moved back to New Jersey two and a half years later, my rebbetzin graciously took me into her home. I had the privilege of living with her for a year. The countless hours she gave to the members of her shul and the community at large were unfathomable; her commitment to all her children and grandchildren even more so. But I also glimpsed what most people don’t see: the quiet moments, sincere conversations, and behind-the-scenes love, thought, and care she had for anyone and everyone who walked through her front door.
After I met my future husband, David, at the Shabbaton, we flew to see each other every other week, alternating between New York and Toronto. During my trips, Bracha welcomed me into her home, and while David worked she made sure that I saw the Toronto sights or simply had great conversations over good food. Bracha showed me what it meant to be comfortable in my own shoes: accepting my full self, including the rough edges that further life experience and maturity will smooth over. She epitomized humble generosity, awareness, and sensitivity to others. She could read beyond the words and feel beyond the silence.
At first, I was these women’s adopted daughter, but after a short time, I became a confidante and close friend. At my wedding, their lessons twirled around us as I danced with Bracha, Goldie, and Esti’s daughter (Esti unable to make the trip herself), sending me on the right path to start my marriage and family.
My mother is my best friend. She’s smart, loving, wickedly funny, and can push my buttons. She demonstrates aging gracefully with the ability to live youthfully. All of my Jewish mothers have embodied similar traits, and I’m often surprised that more young women don’t surround themselves with those who are older.
I have a friend in her sixties who attended a writing workshop. During her free time, she hoped to engage with the other writers to discuss their stories. She was saddened that her younger classmates didn’t find her “cool” enough to spend time with; they gathered amongst themselves, no space for the older woman in the room. In their place, I would have happily spent the afternoon sipping coffee and chatting with any woman like her. Beyond these women’s ability to fulfill the maternal presence I yearn for while being geographically far from my own mother, I’m actually soaking up their knowledge, their experiences, and the middos that will help me develop and grow as an individual, a wife, a mother, and friend.
This summer we will be relocating to Norfolk, Virginia for a job transfer and the opportunity to live in a smaller but well-established community. Out of all my friends in Toronto, Bracha’s will be the hardest goodbye. Technology nowadays makes staying in touch easy and instant, but it won’t be the same for me or my boys to not have their Auntie Bracha close by. There is a lot of fear that accompanies a major life change like this, but I find comfort in the knowledge that I’ll meet my next Jewish mother shortly. And as a recently-turned forty-year-old, I hope that a young woman in our new community will decide to collect me.
Some names were changed for privacy