Rosa Doherty

A mezuzah reminds me of the joy and happiness of my grandparents' home. Now I have one just like theirs

A liberal secular millennial connects with an Orthodox man when he visits to help her fit the sign of a Jewish home

May 30, 2019 15:44

I can’t remember when I first learned what a mezuzah was. When I think back on my childhood it is not a question I remember asking but I’m sure it was one that got asked. I have always liked asking questions.

“Why do granny and grandpa have that thing on the door? Why do we have one too?”

I imagine the answer that followed was something along the lines of “we are Jewish and it is what we do,” because for as long as I can remember I’ve always known to recognise it is a symbol of a Jewish house.

The beautiful bronzed one that was once fixed to my grandparents' door frame now sits on the front door of my mum’s house.

Every time I visit her house seeing it there gives me a warm feeling. It is a feeling of comfort, familiarity and home.

That tiny doorbell-like decoration conjures up all the joy and happiness that came from spending time with my Jewish grandparents. It connects me to a feeling of culture and identity. I feel the same when I hear Irish music play.

As a child I’d stare out of the window of the car as we drove through Hampstead Garden Suburb knowing that in each house I spotted with a mezuzah, a Jewish family lived there.

They probably weren’t very like my family with its weird and wonderful concoction of faiths and backgrounds, but the one thing I had in common with whoever lived behind those doors was the uncompromising fact that I and they were Jewish.

Being Jewish was not something I was brought up thinking you can opt out of, and I like that about our community as a whole.

So when I received a message on Facebook from a Chabad rabbi offering to come and help me fit a mezuzah after I’d moved into my first proper adult home with my husband, I didn’t think twice about saying yes.

It was always something I imagined myself doing as a grown up. Despite my lack of faith, whatever my family looked like, I was always going to have a mezuzah, because it is what we do.

You might think that someone like me, a liberal secular millennial, might be put off by the idea of an Orthodox man being the person I’d choose to help me in my quest.

I could have asked any religious leader, one I have more in common with. That is true, but I was always taught that when someone offers to do something kind for you, it is polite to accept it.

And I’ve also always admired the non-pushiness of the more religious leaders I’ve encountered.

Chabad rabbis and their families live all over the world in the most far flung places essentially to make sure that Jewish people in them, no matter what kind of Jew they are, can have a sense of familiarity, comfort and home.

Unlike traditional missionaries, they don’t stand on street corners shoving leaflets at you and they don’t knock on your door in the middle of EastEnders, but they are there for you when you need them.

And perhaps they can afford to be a little more laid back, because like it or lump it, you are Jewish or you’re not, and if you’re not and you’ve converted then you’ve gone to greater lengths than most of us to prove it.

When Rabbi Boruch Altein arrived at my house I greeted him at my front door. Having spent the morning in and out of shops in Stamford Hill, I’d found a mezuzah that looked similar to the one my grandparents had.

I'd gone out to get kosher biscuits and paper cups so that I could offer him a drink if he wanted it. He sat on my sofa and explained how a rabbi from Canada, Winnipeg had ended up in Crouch End north London.

Within seconds, Jewish geography and its uncanny ability to connect people all over the world had done its work. My mum had just returned from a trip with her Canadian Jewish friends from, yes, you guessed it, Winnipeg.

And call me a sucker, but moments like this make me feel that there will always be things, nice things, familiar things, that bring us together and allow us to connect.

Taking out the scroll of hand written parchment, Rabbi Altein explained to my non-Jewish husband why a mezuzah is affixed to the door of Jewish homes: to fulfil the mitzvah to “write the words of God on the gates and doorposts of your house."

We listened and he continued: “In years gone by Jews had to hide who we are, but today thank god we don’t.”

It was with those words and as I hammered the nails into my doorframe that I felt I had done my duty.

My house won’t be a Jewish house like Rabbi Altein’s, but it will be just as proud.

May 30, 2019 15:44

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