Call it fate. Kismet. Serendipity. Divine Intervention. The day I met Elaine, I had just about given up on making new friends in my new town, Westport, Connecticut.
My husband, three sons, and I had just moved here from New York City, drawn by the good schools, numerous amenities, and the reputation Westport had as a town with a strong arts community. My sons were certainly thrilled with their schools and the friends they had made. My husband Josh liked living in a house, where he could retreat to his home office for a few moments of sanity–impossible with apartment living.
I was the only stick in the mud. I was friendly, outgoing, interested in other people. But I was used to the casual interactions of the city, meeting other working Moms on the playground, grabbing a quick cup of coffee. Westport was different. Playdates were planned weeks in advance, and conversations revolved around the intense sports culture. I was out of the loop for the first time in my life.
All that changed one day on the playground of of our preschool, Learning Community. My son Mike was climbing up the slide, closely followed by a strong, athetic looking, light-haired girl. They were chatting away.
“Is that your son?” I heard a woman say. “My daughter loves him,” she said. “I hate this whole planned playdate thing, but…”
To paraphrase a famous movie line, Elaine had me at “I hate playdates.” We talked and talked that day, discovering that our 5th grade boys, Sam and Misha were also good friends. Soon, Josh and I had dinner with Elaine and her husband George. We were a United Nations of backgrounds and interests and religions. A melting pot of Italian Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Judaism; between the four of us, we had every Eastern European country covered, along with Italy.
Our friendship was cemented by a calendar of holidays. We were introduced to their wonderful traditions:the midnight Easter mass of George’s Russian Orthodox religion, the festivity of their Christmas, and the sheer pagan decadence of their New Years’ Eve party.
They, in turn, delighted in our holiday rituals. They came to my 3 sons’ Bar Mitzvahs, where they danced the hora. They came to our Erev Yom Kippur dinner, and our Break Fast. They have come to our seders, where Elaine’s mother delighted in my mother’s brisket, while George ate at least two bowls of piping hot matzo ball soup. That alone cemented my mother’s love for George.
Food has been a way to celebrate our differences and our similarities. Recently, friends hosted a 25th wedding anniversary for George and Elaine. I made stuffed cabbage and pierogi to honor Elaine’s Polish roots, and beet salad to honor George’s Russian tradition. Elaine’s 90-year old Polish mother pronounced my stuffed cabbage superior to her own! Whether or not this is true, I’m deeply honored by her compliment, and thrilled that in this shared recipe, Jews and Poles come together. Can–dare I ask–stuffed cabbage begin to heal the scars of history? I don’t need an answer for now, just Elaine’s mother enjoying it.
A deep and abiding friendship with our Catholic and Russian Orthodox friends has, I believe, taught my children a valuable lesson. From an early age, my Jewish children learned not mere tolerance, which is a good starting place for everyone, but a deep appreciation of others’ cultures and religions. They learned we’re all not so different. We all like stuffed cabbage.
It’s not just a family or personal message, but the message of my business, Challah Connection. Here at Challah Connection, I strongly believe that my customers are not just people like me. No, they’re Catholic and Buddhist and Russian Orthodox. They are in Idaho and Florida, California and Canada. They–we–come from all different places and beliefs. That’s what has made my company something I am deeply proud of. We’re not just a company that provides goods for nice Jewish people like ourselves. We’re a company that provides for the richly diverse world in which we are so lucky to live.
As we approach the holiday season of Hannukkah and Christmas, I look forward to lighting the candles of the menorah. I know that on at least one of those nights, Elaine and George will be by my side, spinning a dreidel, sampling a latke, learning a few Yiddish words.
Soon after, I will marvel at the star on the very top of their Christmas tree.