I’ve been to my fair share of shuls, and written about the wide variety of experiences I’ve had. But it was only on Friday night, when I saw a familiar face in a shul which wasn’t quite my own, that I realised the importance of a warm Jewish community…
Sadly, my Friday night experience was far from positive. It wasn’t a heart warming moment of reconciliation, or a reunion with an old friend. It was on the other end of the spectrum. It was downright disheartening. At my first shul, I’d met a lady called Brocha. Brocha had never quite fit in, to say the least. She sang quietly to herself under her breath, interrupted people’s conversations, and hobbled around on a stick which had certainly seen better days. Everyone dismissed her as an attention seeker, but it was her who shared a piece of chollah with my relative when he came to visit us. And yet, I didn’t really learn. I felt it was easier to fit in. If I were to sit next to Brocha, make conversation with her, and meet up with her outside of shul sometimes, I would be the odd one out. She was a little bit of an outcast for no reason other than being eccentric. And elderly. And lonely. And so I, grateful for my friends in the community, and blissfully unaware of what she was going through, followed along with everyone else, avoiding her as subtly as I could, and allowing her to sit by herself at the back of the shul.
In retrospect, I am so ashamed of this that I hardly want to admit it. I’m doing so because I think there’s an important lesson in this story- one you can learn from.
Eventually I left the shul for reasons I won’t go into, but I never said goodbye to Brocha. She wasn’t a part of my ‘circle’, so to speak, and I was never consciously aware of missing her. In that moment, I felt like more of an outcast than her, but I never invited her to jump ship with me, or even thought of the loneliness she might be dealing with. Months passed. A year passed. Then I saw Brocha again, and this time, everything about her filled me with a cold sense of dread and guilt. Not the vague sort of awareness, the cold indifference I had previously possessed, nor the mirth and scorn of those around me. Rather, I was grasped by a sense of guilt, longing and empathy like nothing I had ever felt before.
If you’ll allow me to explain, Brocha was the odd one out, the black sheep, even the persona non grata in every sense imaginable. It was so easy to play along with that and to ignore her- until I was in her shoes. That’s right- I, the one who had subconsciously contributed to Brocha’s torment, at the very least done nothing to stop it, had turned into Brocha. Have you ever been Brocha? Let me tell you, it’s not nice. Brocha isn’t necessarily the woman whom you ignore at shul- she could be the black sheep at the shabbes table, the classmate no one likes, the relative whose telephone calls you dread. She can be found anywhere and everywhere, so long as human nature- human fault I should say- is at play.
So there I was, sitting in shul, surrounded by my family, and watching as Brocha swayed softly to the sound of shabbes melodies. Alone. I felt a stinging, raw kind of pain as I realised that Brocha probably spent every shabbes alone. She came to shul alone- this very shul I sat in with my loved ones- sat alone as everyone ignored and avoided her, and went home alone, to an empty house with no family. The next morning, the cycle would repeat itself- if, that is, she still went to shul in the mornings, and hadn’t been put off by the perpetual cold shoulder she received. Isn’t that sad?
I have it much better than Brocha, I can say that. And yet, in some sense, I’m in her situation. In some small way. I’ve been there; I’ve been the outcast, the woman whom everyone avoids. And I know how much it hurts. The first time round, the first times I met her, I didn’t- and I don’t think that’s an excuse. But at the time, clearly I thought my behaviour was acceptable. It sure seemed that way. She was just the funny old lady everyone ignored, and if they did it, it couldn’t be so bad. I moved on, I grew, and by the time I saw Brocha again, I had walked a mile in her shoes.
Let me tell you this. They hurt. Brocha’s shoes hurt. They pinch. They’re just that little bit too small, but they’re astoundingly beautiful, so you try and fit into them, and fail. They were made for someone else. So here’s to Brocha. She probably goes to your shul, too. Next time you’re there- this Friday night, perhaps, seek her out, and have a word with her. Otherwise one day, you may end up in the very same position as her…