Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Like a (Gefilte) Fish Out of Water

Last weekend I somewhat reluctantly attended the Bar Mitzvah of my second cousin. Reluctantly, because I don't really have a relationship with him or his parents, and the last time I saw them (my first weekend in Israel), I got the distinct impression that I was not completely welcome. Not to mention that I, more of a spiritual Jew, feel just a tad out of place in their affluent and conventional Orthodox world.

Still, a Bar Mitzvah is a major Jewish life simcha (happy event), these are practically my only relatives on my father's side, and I happen to be in Israel. Alas, as I so often do in life, I decided to go not because I thought I'd have fun but because I didn't want to later regret NOT going.

The family had arranged for me and other out of town relatives to sleep at different homes in the neighborhood, a common practice in Israel that allows Sabbath observers to be near the action. I was hosted next door by a lovely Australian woman and received a key to her house.

The Bar Mitzvah boy's dad, who is my father's cousin and the person I know best (albeit barely), also wanted me to have keys to their residence so I could come and go at will, allowing me to feel more at home. That evening, after dinner has ended, he asks his wife (an Israeli Martha Stewart?) to get me a key.

"Why does she need a key?" she barks, defensively, within earshot. "I'll be up early in the morning to let her in."

I am wishing I had not come.

He asks one of his daughters to get me a set of house keys. She deposits in my hand a giant jangly concoction, complete with baseball hat ornament, in which the house keys are buried. Not the most convenient or discreet thing to be shlepping around on the Sabbath, but keys nonetheless. However, he wants me to have a different set of keys, the one with the key to his car.

Aah. The possibility of escape! I am silently grateful, even if I have no explicit intention of driving anywhere. He hands me the new set of keys.

But. But. His daughter (I can't remember which of the two) takes some kind of offense and emphatically grabs the car keys out of my hand, replacing that set with the original one.

I am stunned and devastated by the hostility. It's not as if she would even be using the car keys herself - it is Shabbat after all. By this point, I am not feeling inclined to "make nice" and forgo the car keys, so I stay silent and wait to see how the drama will play out.

The father ultimately prevails and I take the house and car keys next door for the night, feeling not just like a fish out of water, but like a fish that has been eviscerated before being stuffed and eaten.

Days later, safely back in Jerusalem, I have some time to reflect on this painful episode. Is it possible that the father (a prominent surgeon) is so unavailable to his family, especially the female members, that they deeply resented the tiny bit of attention he paid to me? Could that explain the eruption of anger I witnessed?

I wonder.

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