My friend Valerie and I were biking back to Clinton Hill from Williamsburg. It was evening; she wanted to take the Wythe route through the Jewish part of the neighborhood, as it was better lit and less hilly. I noticed a woman in a traditional white long sleeve blouse, long black skirt, and tights signaling quietly but clearly to me with her finger as if to ask a question. Valerie hadn’t seen and kept biking, but I slowed to a stop.
“Excuse me, do you have a moment?” she asked.
We’re trained to run the other direction in those situations (thanks, Greenpeace), but I saw no clipboard in sight. It was also a very quiet street; I wondered how long she had been standing there. I said sure.
“Could you possibly turn off our air conditioner; it’s getting colder than we expected but can’t do it ourselves.”
It wasn’t Shabbat, but I realized that similar Jewish law regarding “work” (like turning a switch on or off) might apply on holidays, so I asked if it was because of Sukkot, to which she said yes.
“Ok, let me make sure my friend will watch my bike.”I thought for a second and then realized what I needed to disclose: “I should tell you that I’m also Jewish but do not follow the same observance custom; does that matter.”
“Oh, yes, it does matter; it won’t work. Is your friend Jewish?”
“No,” I replied, a bit stunned that I couldn’t perform this mitzvah myself. I also felt apologetic. “I hope it’s not offensive that I don’t observe this custom.”
She warmly thanked me for letting her know, and Valerie agreed without missing a beat to go in and turn the switch off. I stayed with bikes and she went in.
When Valerie emerged 5 minutes later, the woman sent her out with cups of water and gave a friendly wave and thanked us again, and we hopped back on our bikes and rode away.
Everything about this little interaction was exciting to both of us. Like anyone would be, we were curious; who in New York doesn’t like seeing any and every apartment possible and how people live? I was also so thrilled that Valerie could – and proud that she willingly did – perform this mitzvah for a family enjoying dinner during the holiday. I was also a bit jealous and uncomfortable that I couldn’t perform the task myself – I had no moral issue with it – but at the same time, I felt a sense of community with a person whose reality seemed so different from my own, because despite my style of dress and relative ambivalence towards the holiday, I was still a Jew in her eyes. I loved too that traditional observance truly mattered so much to this woman, despite how odd it seems in today’s times.
One more Brooklyn story…