We’re All In This Together
By: Yitti Berkovic
In the dimly lit hotel room, I struggled to make out my profile in the full-length mirror.
Heels or no heels?
The fancier sweater or the I’m-not-trying-so-hard sweater?
And why wouldn’t my sheitel behave the way it was supposed to? Those rebellious bangs were taking on a life of their own, and they were stubbornly resisting my attempts to flatten then.
My husband had already left for mincha (lucky guy – he could just go in a suit and tie), and it was almost time for me to go down to join the rest of the women at the Shabbaton.
I was technically ready, but I kept checking the mirror one last time on my way out, trying to shake off the feeling of insecurity that had me in its grips.
It was the annual Shabbos retreat for parents of children with special needs. Yossi and I had been there before, but we’d taken a few years off, and it was time to reacquaint ourselves with people we hadn’t seen in a while and introduce ourselves to people we’d never met. It felt a little bit like the first day of school, with those tell-tale butterflies broadcasting both my eagerness and my nerves.
I hated to admit, even to myself, that walking into a room full of strangers and almost-strangers felt so intimidating. I found myself tugging on my sweater to make sure it was hitting me in the right spot and checking my reflection to make sure I didn’t have lipstick on my teeth.
When I finally entered the bright ballroom, I pasted on a smile and began making my way around the room. I was anxious to spot a familiar face in the crush of people, and so far, I was striking out.
Too quickly, I was trapped in the adult version of musical chairs. There was no music, but the program facilitator was calling for our attention, instructing us to take a seat. Playing it as cool as I could, I sat down between two perfect strangers.
“Hi, I’m Yitti Berko –“ I started to say, but the woman to my right had just started a conversation with the woman to her right.
That was awkward.
I turned to my left, but the woman sitting there was studying her program booklet as if were the most fascinating thing she had ever seen. Guess I didn’t look that interesting to talk to.
I felt like I was at a wedding where I didn’t know anyone, except it was Shabbos, so I couldn’t stare at my blank phone screen, pretending there was some crisis at home.
After what seemed like a million hours of painful silence, the Shabbaton facilitator asked us to pull our chairs into a circle, and as I waited for directions for our icebreaker activity, I took in the scene around me.
Some effortlessly glamorous women (bet they never get lipstick on their teeth).
Some easily gregarious women (how did they have so much to talk about with people they didn’t know?).
Women older, women younger, women with white handkerchiefs on their sheitels, women with no sheitels at all, chattering pleasantly.
It was impossible to gauge which – if any – women felt like I did, completely out of my comfort zone.
The facilitator announced we would be playing a game called Never-Have-I-Ever. We were each handed two paddles: One that read “I have” and another that read “I have not.”
We would be asked questions, and we would raise the paddle that best answered the question.
I was ready to play. It sure beat sitting around feeling like an outsider.
The facilitator pulled a card from her stack and announced the first question:
“Who sometimes signs her child’s homework sheet even if she’s not entirely sure the homework was done?”
That was totally me. As long as my child sits in front of the homework sheet, I consider it done.
But something stopped me from pulling up my paddle. Why hadn’t they handed out a paddle that read, “I plead the fifth”?
Did they really expect us to be honest? We didn’t know each other! In this no-man’s land, without our kids beside us, we could pretend we were perfect parents. Why give ourselves away?
I kept my paddles on my lap, realizing I wasn’t the Nachshon of the group; I wasn’t ready to announce my foibles for the crowd of strangers.
I looked around instead, watching as the other women’s eyes darted back and forth, waiting for someone else to break the ice.
Then – finally! – one woman shrugged and raised her paddle. “I have!” she declared and laughed self-deprecatingly. “There’s always a million things going on during homework hour.”
Then, the woman next to her, with two bright spots on her cheeks, raised her paddle too. “I have,” she grinned. “I never have head space for homework.”
It was like the dam had been broken. A wave of paddles were held aloft.
“I don’t even listen with half an ear!”
When the next question came, the paddles went up much faster.
“Who yells at their kids that the cleaning help will quit if they don’t clean up before she gets there?”
There was some furious nodding.
“Oh, that’s sooo me.”
“My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I’m telling you, she’ll quit.”
“Do you know what my house looks like after a whole Shabbos?”
By the third question, we were hooked. There was something so cathartic about realizing that the things we’re most embarrassed about are also the things we all have in common.
“Who pretends not to notice when her mother-in-law calls her cellphone?”
There was a collective groan.
“It’s like she has a radar – she always calls at the worst times!”
“I wish I could be more patient, but it’s a real nisayon for me!”
“I speak to her more often than my own mother – and my husband still doesn’t think it’s enough!”
By now the room was buzzing. There was a growing sense that even though we were perfect strangers, we knew each other well. We got each other.
The rest of the questions continued to elicit laughter and sheepish grins.
“Who has pretended not to hear her baby cry in the middle of the night until her husband has no choice but to get up and make a bottle?”
“Who has tried to pass store-bought desserts off as her own?”
“Who has locked herself in the bathroom just to get a break from the pre-bedtime chaos?”
We held up our paddles and felt ourselves relaxing in an atmosphere that had once been uncomfortable but now was lighthearted and self-deprecating and liberating.
The last question really got me:
“Who felt awkward when she walked into this room and realized she didn’t really know anyone?”
There was a five second pause – and then nearly every paddle went up.
I laughed out loud as I surveyed the room.
I guess the effortlessly glamorous women didn’t find it so effortless after all.
I guess the easily gregarious women didn’t find it that easy either.
Our insecurities are normal.
Our failings are normal.
Our awkwardness is normal.
It’s what makes us human; it’s what we all share.
When we think we’re the only ones fretting about our outfits and our sheitels and what people will think, we can remind ourselves that we’re in very good company.
Why beat ourselves up about our insecurities in our private corners?
It’s so much more fun to laugh about them all together.