Monday, August 15, 2005

Blue collar Jews

We spent this Shabbat with friends in a very small community outside London. For the Seudah Mafseket before Tisha b'Av, they had over a mother and her son, who our host was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. The woman, a single mother, was a chambermaid at a local hotel.
The son will be Bar Mitzvah in January, and this woman was insistant that her son will be called up to the Torah. To prepare him for this, she took him to the local Orthodox synagogue, where, she says, she was roundly ignored by the rather snooty community. A local rabbi agreed to teach the young boy, however, he never invited the family over for a meal (something I find incredible), and told the mother the kid wouldn't be able to do more than read the brachot for the Torah, mainly because he didn't have time to teach him properly.
Luckily, our host met them in shul and volunteered to take the boy under his wing. He's having three lessons a week and our host was certain he would be able to read the entire parsha fluently by January. The kid was bright, interested in Judaism and eager to learn (so far, he said, he most enjoyed learning to put on tefillin; he joined us for eichah in shul and was going to try fasting 'til midday). The mother told us how proud she was and how, although making this Bar Mitzvah for her son was a major financial hardship, she felt it was important and was prepared to do it (although she was upset that the rabbi of the shul where her son would be called to the Torah -- not the local one -- was very particular about which tefillin she got her son and from where; he didn't understand she couldn't afford the best). She also, incidentally, insisted on a ceremony in an Orthodox shul and did not want to go to the local progressive (Reform) synagogue, which probably would have been more welcoming.
My heart went out to this warm and friendly woman, who genuinely wanted to give her son a Jewish experience/education, yet, because she was essentially a working class/blue collar Jew, and did not conform to our middle class conception of what a Jew looks and sounds like, was not made welcome, was not helped 'do Jewish,' and was completely under-estimated (as were her son's capabilities). We complain that our simchas are costly -- for this woman, a hotel maid, I remind you, making even a modest Bar Mitzvah -- new suit, kiddush, etc. -- was more of a financial sacrifice than most of us could imagine.
According to our host, the boy's school has other kids just like him -- Jewish, blue collar, no money. How many more people like this are excluded from our communities because they don't look or sound 'right' and because they are priced out of the market? It makes me shudder to think.

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