by: Annelize Williams, BFP Staff Writer
Mishpocha is a charming Yiddish term which in its essence means family. It also describes the unforeseen, yet delightful, sense of family one witnesses among the residents of Jerusalem. Despite numerous differences within the Jewish community, there remains a strong sense of oneness. The various heartwarming incidents that take place in the colorful communal spaces are indisputable proof of this. Whether you are on the bus, in the market, on the streets or in the park—you cannot help but see mishpocha all around you.
Summer in Jerusalem can be a very challenging affair when temperatures rise high into the 30s (upper 90s F) and most walking in the city requires climbing steep hills. What a wonderfully sweet encounter, when you come across a concerned old lady in one of those uphill walks who graciously offers you a corner of her umbrella with a wide-eyed smile.
There are also the unique moments to be experienced on public transportation, where you might receive a drink offered by a motherly figure. Indeed, a friend recalls traveling to work one summer’s day, when a darling lady offered her a drink of water. Pulling a bottle of water from a cooler box and a stack of plastic cups from her handbag the lady poured her a refreshing drink. “It’s going to be very hot today,” she said, “be sure to drink enough water!” Such instances of unexpected kindness certainly make you feel as if you are surrounded by family.
In Israel motherhood becomes a community affair. Often when a mom struggles to get her stroller on and off the bus, a stranger will graciously lend a hand or offer some spirited, yet helpful instructions. At other times you may see a mother offering a bite of her own little one’s biscuit to another mom’s crying toddler.
In the parks you frequently witness this communal motherhood, too, as the mothers watch a group of toddlers playing together. If a little one suddenly gets hurt, not just one mother responds—but, as a brood of hens, all the mothers run to the rescue. While giving comfort to the crying toddler as if the child were their own, they also issue some stern instructions to the older ones to make sure they play more carefully.
Even an everyday act like buying a new pair of jeans can turn out to be a surprisingly familial affair. A dear friend of mine tells the story of the day when she had set out to purchase a new pair of jeans in Jerusalem. After trying them on in the fitting room, slightly self-conscious she ventured out to the mirrors, wondering whether this was the right fit and style for her. It was not long before she was surrounded by women of various ages, giving advice and compliments, while others found alternate design styles for her to try on.
The privilege of attending a traditional Shabbat dinner in a Jewish home is an opportunity to participate in the pinnacle of Israeli family life. The Jewish community possesses such a unique form of hospitality and the incredible ability to make everyone feel at home—a legacy of their father Abraham. I can still remember attending an open Shabbat with some friends a few years ago. As people arrived in large groups at the door, no one was turned away from the home, even though later it seemed like there was no space left in the room. Everyone got the same hearty welcome and in that night all became one big family as we ate and sang and talked together, whether Jew or Gentile. Not once did anyone mention discomfort or look even slightly worried that the food might not be enough for all. What a memorable experience it was.
The traditional wedding vows promise, “In sickness and in health, till death do us part.” The observance of this wonderful phenomenon of mishpocha continues when a member of the community dies, as we witness in the Jewish practice of sitting Shiva. It is a custom when someone has passed on, that the rest of the family, friends and members of the community, will come to sit with the grieving family in their home to mourn the deceased for a period of seven days. During this time people show up with food, with flowers and kind words, spending time just sitting, remembering and honoring the deceased. Often on the Facebook group Secret Jerusalem, there will be requests for any willing Jerusalemites to join a family who do not have enough company for the period of Shiva.
A heated debate in a marketplace or a passionate discourse on a bus could very easily deceive you into believing that the residents of Jerusalem are not very unified. Once you form closer ties with these demonstrative people and engage in a few conversations, you will discover that they know better than most what standing together and being family really means. Having been persecuted for so many centuries, and having gone through so much heartache together as a nation, they definitely understand the value and the strength of mishpocha.
There is definitely a surprising element of unexpected family that one gets to experience among the residents of Jerusalem that makes life in Israel so unique. Never underestimate the potential of new family members and the value they can add to your life.
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