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Monday, December 11, 2006

'Ma Pitom?!', and other inscrutable Israeli expressions

One of the [many] things I enjoy about my job is that it affords me the opportunity to interact with Israelis from all parts of our rich national/cultural tapestry.  The people with whom I work are secular, observant, traditional, leftist, rightist, sepharidim, ashkenazim, edot hamizrach (eastern communities)... you name it!

Unlike in the US where religion and politics are taboo... people here are not shy about sharing their religious and political views at the drop of a hat.   And the absolute conviction with which they hold forth on these topics is something one has to see/hear to appreciate.  It's not enough that they are correct... but everyone else must be portrayed as so criminally wrong as to defy rational logic.

A woman with whom I frequently eat lunch perfectly fits this template of the smug, self-assured Israeli... certain beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt that every one of her long-held convictions is like Torah from Sinai. 

She can best be described as follows:

  • Polish (meaning her parents immigrated from that country after the war.  The stereotypical Polish-Israeli woman has a reputation for being extremely direct, pushy and opinionated.  I can't say this is true for the entire species... but this example certainly bears that out.)
  • Secular (meaning she thinks religious people are mildly disturbed)
  • Traditional (meaning she is deeply invested in many aspects of Jewish culture and sees the holidays as extremely important to family and society at large.  She sees no conflict between this and her view of religious people)
  • Left-of-center (meaning she's a life-long labor voter, but admits to using her vote to block right wing platforms she thinks will give the religious too much power over the rest of the country rather than out of any love for the agenda of the left).
  • Dyed (meaning her coif has been colored so many times in so many different hues that I don't think that even she remembers the original color of her hair)

I mention her because she approached me - quite reluctantly - a few months ago, before the 'High Holidays' for a chat.  She broached the subject on her mind in such a casual, off-hand manner that it was obvious to me that she had been carefully planning her opening for hours... if not days.

"David", she began in her smoke-tinged Hebrew, "your parents aren't religious, are they?"

We'd had this conversation on more than one occasion, so I couldn't imagine where she was going with this.  I answered in the affirmative and waited for her to let me know what was really on her mind.

"I see that you have a good relationship with them... I mean, after all... they come to visit you all the time, right?"

I admitted this much but assured her that it probably had more to do with my kids than with me.  This seemed to strike a nerve, and for several minutes this woman sat and contemplated how much it was safe to share.

"You know I'm a grandmother, don't you?"

I remembered seeing the pictures of her son and daughter-in-law's wedding all over her office... the dreadlocks (both)... the nose ring (her) and eyebrow piercing (him)...  and the awkward angle of the pointy yarmulke on the groom's head under the Huppah. 

I also remembered a year later when this tough-as-nails Polish-Israeli woman had come into the office and tearfully announced to everyone that her first grandchild had been born... and then promptly disappeared for two weeks to go help her daughter-in-law take care of the new arrival.

I looked at her as she waited for the answer to her question and said, "Of course I know you're a grandmother!"  The sudden look of horror that crossed her face made me rush on "But I would never have known if you hadn't told me personally when the baby was born". 

This seemed to put her mind slightly at ease... but she still seemed to be tip-toeing around a subject without knowing how to broach it.

As if suddenly making up her mind, she blurted "Do you ever go to your parent's house for dinner?"

"All the time", I answered.

"No, no, what do you do... you know... about the fact that they don't keep kosher?"

I went on to explain that my parents had made a decision on their own to learn about Kashrut and always had kosher dishes, utensils and pots & pans for when we came to visit.  I also explained that we made certain 'allowances' for innocent mistakes that my parents habitually made since the Biblical commandment to 'honor one's parents' took clear precedence over the largely Rabbinic ordnances involved in keeping kosher.  I explained that this didn't extend to eating non-kosher (treif) food... but if my dad accidentally used a dairy spoon to stir a pot of chicken soup, I kept my mouth shut... put the spoon aside for later 'kashering', and handed him the correct utensil.

Tears welled up against the sturdy dam of mascara around her eyes as she listened to me talk and I started to get a hint of what this might be about.  As if to confirm my suspicions, she blurted out, "So why won't my son and his family come to my house for Shabbat?!"

I feigned surprise and asked "I don't understand, are your son and his wife religious"?

She answered "Yes, they became religious (Hozer b'tshuvah) shortly after they got married, and since then they haven't come to us for shabbat or any of the holidays."  By now the tears were flowing freely, leaving dark tracks down her cheeks.

"Well", I ventured, "have you invited them?"

She looked at me as if I had asked the dumbest question in the world.  "Ma Pitom!  (no translation possible, but this is sort of a combination of 'what are you talking about?!' and 'Don't be silly!')  I never invite any of my kids for shabbat or holidays... they just come.  It's understood!"

I looked at this woman who was teetering between self-confident Sabra and abandoned Jewish mother/grandmother, and decided to get a little background before moving on.

"OK, let me ask you something.  What was your reaction when you found out your son and his wife were becoming more religious?"

"Reaction?" she said.  "What reaction?  I told them they could go as crazy as they liked... just not to expect me to go crazy with them."

"Ahah!" I exclaimed, "Now we're getting somewhere.  Put yourself in your son's shoes.  He's just told his mother ... the mother that raised him to be a certain way... that he and his family are changing their whole way of life.  It sounds like you reacted as if he had told you they were going off to live in an ashram."

Before she could even stop herself she answered "That I could accept!"

We sat looking at each other for a couple of minutes before I asked my next question.

"What do you usually do for Pesach?  Do you make a big family seder?"

"Of course!" she replied.  "What a question!"

"What about Rosh Hashannah and Sukkot... does the whole family get together?"

I could see she wanted to give me the same 'of course' answer, but instead she said, "So, what does that have to do with anything?  We also get together on Hanukkah... and I always send the kids a basket of treats on Purim... so what?  That has nothing to do with religion!"

I cut her off gently by holding up my hand, "Of course it does!  For you, those holidays are cultural family observances.  But these holidays wouldn't exist without their religious origins.  All your son has done is take what you raised him with and gone looking for more.  He hasn't rejected his parent's life-style, he's just gone looking for the explanation behind what you always did."

"So then why don't they come for Shabbat and the holidays?!" she blurted.  The question came out as a sob, although I'm sure she was unaware of it.

I ignored the rawness of her outburst and said, "When I asked you before if you had ever invited them for shabbat or the holidays, you made me feel like it was a foolish question.  But I have to tell you that I think that's why they haven't come.   They changed the way they eat and the way they observe Shabbat and the holidays.  You let them know you thought they were crazy... so they are probably just staying away as a way of avoiding a potential source of conflict."

"Let me ask you", I went on, "What would you do if they came for Shabbat and the holidays".  Would you prepare the food so that they could feel comfortable eating it?  "

"Ma Pitom!  she responded.  "All the food in my house is kosher!"

This caught me off guard.  "You keep kosher?" I asked.

"Well, not with two sets of dishes like the fanatics, but all the food in my kitchen is kosher."

I thought this over.  Of course, most food available in Israeli supermarkets is kosher... and you'd actually have to go looking for non-kosher food in most places.  So I gently pointed out "Sure, all the food in your kitchen is kosher... but by the time it reaches the dining-room it isn't anymore.  Don't you see that for the price of a few disposable aluminum pans and a couple of sets of cheap utensils you could have your son back?"

She thought about this for a few minutes before arriving at the obvious stumbling block.

"But they wouldn't trust me to do things correctly... I'm sure they wouldn't eat what I make."

I shook my head and said "They don't have to trust you.  Invite them for shabbat and tell your daughter-in-law you need her help in the kitchen so everything will be OK for them.  I guarantee you that not only will they come... but they will thank you for extending yourself and going out of your way."

Again she waved me off with a "Ma Pitom!", but this time I could see her objection was just for show... she was seriously thinking it over.

"Look", I said, "You have it easier than most people in your situation.  You live in a mixed community with religious and non-religious people so there is a synagogue nearby.  Really the only thing keeping your son and his family from joining you for Shabbat or the holidays is the food.  Trust me... call your daughter-in-law and ask for her help."

Several months have gone by since that conversation took place and I didn't hear a thing.  I didn't want to pry into a private family matter... and this woman didn't normally volunteer much about her private life.  So that was that.

But the other day we were all sitting around waiting for a meeting to begin when several people started talking about their plans for Hanukkah.  Without missing a beat this woman proudly mentioned to everyone present that her kids were coming to her house for Shabbat Hanukkah for latkes.

I didn't want to give anything away, but I had to ask.  "All your kids?"

"Ma Pitom!" she snapped.  "Where else would my children go for the holiday?"

Nobody else saw it... mostly because they weren't looking for it... but as the words left her mouth, her eyes twinkled and the corners of her lips turned up in a small smile that was meant just for me.

Ahem... Have you voted yet today?

The 2006 Weblog Awards


Posted by David Bogner on December 11, 2006 | Permalink


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Beautiful post, good job, a real Kiddush Hashem. Yasher Koach.

Posted by: aidelmaidel | Dec 11, 2006 1:51:26 PM


[sniffle. hiccup. sniffle.]

good. post. this.

Posted by: zahava | Dec 11, 2006 2:06:34 PM

Very nice post, David.

Hmmm, .. this wouldn't have been specially saved for the week you want us to vote for you, would it? Like sweeps week on American television?



Posted by: Yehuda Berlinger | Dec 11, 2006 2:46:03 PM

amazing... maybe my mother will do the same one day

in other news, im trying to get to israel, but im currently stuck in toronto. wish me luck and ill be there tmw...

Posted by: SF Lisa | Dec 11, 2006 3:46:19 PM

yet anothe post that shows why you are a finalist in the weblogs....

Your answer and explanation to her were right on the money and showed great sensitivty to the situation.

Posted by: Rafi G | Dec 11, 2006 4:02:55 PM

Courtesy extends both ways, IMHO. Her kids could have made an attempt to contact her and say "We would love to come and here is how it can work for everyone" Respect runs both ways, and the possibility for offense is always from both sides. Good communication is key. Granted, after her reaction to their lifestyle change I can see why the wouldn't want to have that conversation, but uncomfortable conflict that resolves an issue for the better is worth the time, especially when it involves family. IMHO. :-)

Posted by: Ezer Knegdo | Dec 11, 2006 4:06:19 PM

Man, I love this country, I love these people. Couldn't live anywhere else.
Right here, under the mushroom cloud ;)

Posted by: Dave | Dec 11, 2006 4:56:20 PM

The fanatics are those who keep one or two more traditions than I do. The heretics, one or two fewer. We have two sets of dishes, not just one, like the heretics, but we don't keep chalav Israel, like the fanatics.

Teach me something, please. What's the literal translation of "ma pitom"? What does "pitom" mean? Idiomatically, it sounds like it's used like the all-purpose "Fuhgget about it".

Zahava: feel better.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 11, 2006 5:43:50 PM

Absolutely beautiful. More than that, it was one of those stories that is only beautiful when appreciated by someone who is sensitive to these things and written by someone who can properly express that beauty. Thank you.

Posted by: ilan | Dec 11, 2006 5:45:21 PM

aidelmaidel... Thank you. I can't take credit for the subject matter... just the packaging.

Zahava... Sorry honey. I wasn't thinking. :-)

Yehuda Berlinger... You got me. I had the staff writers here at treppenwitz hold back the good stuff on the off chance I might end up in the finals of a blog run-off. Yeah, that's the ticket!

SF Lisa... Stranger things have happened. Since that time my parents have moved to Israel and are keeping a kosher kitchen (albeit for our benefit, not out of any sense of religiosity).

Rafi G... Thank you. It's called 'been there, done that'. Experience is the best teacher.

Ezer Knegdo... In fairness, she is a bit of a tough cookie. I could see her son simply keeping his head down in hopes he won't get any more barbs about 'those religious fanatics'. :-)

Dave... You said a mouthful.

DOctor Bean.. 'Pitom' literally means 'suddenly'. So 'Ma Pitom' means 'What suddenly'. Obvious, right? :-)

ilan... Like I said to aidelmaidel, I didn't have anything to do with the gift... just the wrapping.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 11, 2006 5:58:25 PM

Oh I hear that. According to some of our congregants, Mr. EK and I are religious fanatics. And according to some of my brother's charedi community, we are apikorsim. Often, we just keep our noses clean, don't offer any unpackaged, unsealed food to some folks, and try to ignore the xmas trees in the living rooms of other folks :-)

I guess we have just learned to traverse that middle ground so well we just assume everyone has the same sense of balance. I think Mr. EK and I forget how hard it was for us to get to this place.

It is probably hard to be newly religious, insecure and have your mother call you a fanatic. At the same time, I know what a shock it was for my parents when I began keeping kosher and being shomer shabbes; they felt like it was a slap in the face, and oh my Lord when my brother put on his big black hat my parents nearly had a joint coronary. I think, sadly, they could have handled his marrying a non-Jew better than his becoming charedi. BUT all sides have made huge leaps for the other sides and as a result we have a wonderful, eclectic family that is intact, basically supportive of one another, and often eats together. And the things we can't do together, such as many holidays and shabbat, are the compromises we all make to maintain the relationships. Is it easy all the time? No way. But so worth it.

I think it took a lot for your friend to call her son and make those strides, and for her son to accept them. You facilitated keeping a family together. If we had such concepts in Judaism, I'd say you get 'Olam Ha-Bah" brownie points. Oh, well, people will just have to vote for you instead ;-)

Posted by: Ezer Knegdo | Dec 11, 2006 7:16:31 PM

Wow, what a kiddush H-shem! And so wise of you to explain it so well to her. I'm sure her kids appreciate it! Beautifully written, too.

Posted by: Essie | Dec 11, 2006 7:38:52 PM

Beautiful post, amazing handling of the situation. Wow. :)

Posted by: Ezzie | Dec 11, 2006 7:52:02 PM

David you need to be nominated more often so that these good posts will come out....do you intentionally save the good stuff for "the sweeps"? ;)

Posted by: safranit | Dec 11, 2006 8:17:31 PM

Shalom & salaam,

What a beautiful post and deft handling of a delicate situation.

There are so many bridges of understanding to be built- thanks for being a spiritual engineer in this case.


Posted by: Baraka | Dec 11, 2006 9:01:38 PM

Essie: Only fanatic's write "H-shem"! ;-) Hashem isn't G-d's name, it's just Hebrew for "the name". You certainly wouldn't (I hope) have a problem with the word "hashem" written in Hebrew, right? After all, it's just a substitute for the real thing. I'm sorry; I mean "th- re-l th-ng".

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 11, 2006 9:37:52 PM

Getting ready to go to see the family back in NC/SC for a wedding and Christmas. I don't stay over at one grandmother's place for long because she smokes and it's awful. I am allergic to it. Note to Grannies (and potential Grannies) - don't smoke and your kids and grandkids will visit more. Plus you live longer and have more time to enjoy them.

Posted by: John | Dec 11, 2006 10:48:48 PM

Great, descriptive writing. Beautiful story. I've seen that type of woman before - tough as nails but underneath it is a heart of gold (IF they like you, that is!).

Lots of people are wondering whether you're "writing to the awards" (as in "teaching to the test") but as far as I can tell, you deserve credit that in knowing that so many additional, new visitors will be stopping by here, you're sticking to the type of writing you do best - poignant slices of life with a lesson. Keep keeping it real!

Posted by: RaggedyMom | Dec 11, 2006 11:25:18 PM

"Ahem... Have you voted yet today?"

Thanks for the reminder and for the terrific story.

Posted by: Gail | Dec 12, 2006 3:44:45 AM

That was beautiful and inspirational. Thank you.

Posted by: Ahuva | Dec 12, 2006 4:08:09 AM

Golly gee. Unspoken Expectations meets Complete Embafflement once again! I'm glad you were able to explain so much to her. It seems to me it would go so much easier for her if she would *tell* her kids how she sees things. Instead, she is getting hurt by their lack of communication ~ because *she* is not communicating.

Oh, how we complicate these things, lah?



~Chani (Thailand Gal)

Posted by: Thailand Gal | Dec 12, 2006 4:19:30 AM

Great post! There is a really good book that I read when I started becoming religious about how to be religious without alienating your family. I think its called What Do You Mean You Can't Eat in My Home?.

Posted by: Fern | Dec 12, 2006 5:23:34 AM

you sir are a genius. israel (and probably everywhere else in the world) definitely needs you.

Posted by: Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) | Dec 12, 2006 5:33:45 AM

Loved it ...

Posted by: Seattle | Dec 12, 2006 6:27:12 AM

Doc Bean - only fanatics write 'G-d' instead of God, too. There's nothing wrong with it; heck, in terms of words strictly on a computer, I see no reason why one couldn't reproduce Shem Hashem in Hebrew, either. (There's plenty of reasons why; an example of one preliminary analysis from a Gush rebbe is here:
http://www.haretzion.org/friedman.htm )

David - Great post! I know all too well the difficulties in dealing with such issues in a family; I'm happy that it's worked out splendidly for yet another one.

Posted by: matlabfreak | Dec 12, 2006 7:42:10 AM

Like Eliyahu HaNavi, you turned the hearts of parent and child back toward one another. A true Kiddush HaShem.

Posted by: Shira Salamone | Dec 12, 2006 7:47:29 AM

Great post David. Especially appreciated by someone who has "been there, done that" from the child's perspective, and will probably have to experience it from the parent's perspective!

Posted by: westbankmama | Dec 12, 2006 8:42:02 AM

That's a fantastic story. :)

Posted by: Chana | Dec 12, 2006 5:18:27 PM

You may or may not win best blog, but what you did here just won you a pass to The World To Come.....

Posted by: aliyah06 | Dec 12, 2006 7:40:46 PM

"For you, those holidays are cultural family observances. But these holidays wouldn't exist without their religious origins. All your son has done is take what you raised him with and gone looking for more. He hasn't rejected his parent's life-style, he's just gone looking for the explanation behind what you always did." David - it's really amazing how the simplicity of these words are really far reaching.

Personally, I've noticed a huge change in my mother-n-law with her sensitivity to providing a kosher environment whenever family members are visting. My husband's side of the family is relatively small and all the children, except for one, keeps kosher in the home (and one outside the home too.) I think that ever since my outburst of anger, at the family Chanukah party last year,(she was interfering with my request for my children to not eat the shrimp that was offered at dinner - I know - don't ask)and with us recently koshering our kitchen, she has really come a long way in accepting that it's ok to actually do more than go to services twice a year, eat bagels with lox, and use Jewish slang.

Posted by: jaime | Dec 12, 2006 10:26:19 PM

I also wanted to add that being a 'cultural Jew" myself, I definitely understand her opinions towards those who are religious (though I have a problem even using that word.) Up until the last few years - when I have been involved in the modern religious community because of my children's school and now our shul - aside from kashrut, most of the customs from dress to behaviors to actions seemed ridiculous, annoying and even embarrassing. But like with any group who is different, you have to make the effort and open yourself up to learning, accepting and respecting each other. It does go both ways.

Your comment about the ashram and how she would accept that, reminded me of a friend who pointed out to me that when it comes to accepting and celebrating the diversity of another culture of whom are strongly tied to their heritage and religion, most of us don't have a problem with that. But when it comes to our own, we can't deal with it. It really woke me up, because, I was one of them and he was right. Why did I think it was so beautiful that the Amish keep to their ways or an Eskimo or a Native American, yet not a religous Jew? I had no explanation.

Posted by: jaime | Dec 12, 2006 10:44:18 PM

Matlabfreak: Of course. You're right. I never write "G-d" except for here, and that's out of respect for our host, who prefers that.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 13, 2006 12:23:56 AM

What a great story! And I'm so glad it has a happy ending! : )

Posted by: Irina | Dec 13, 2006 7:24:25 AM

Alright! Alright, already! I'll vote! Just don't stop with the well-turned prose, eh?

Posted by: Wrymouth | Dec 13, 2006 11:24:50 AM

Now you guys are just embarrassing me. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 13, 2006 2:53:06 PM

beautiful post.
this story is so Israeli.

Posted by: jerusalem joe | Dec 18, 2006 9:13:17 AM

Very poignant - I enjoyed it very much. And to think that I found it while doing writing research for my next novel on the uses of "Ma pitom!"

Yafeh me'od.

Posted by: Sheyna Galyan | Dec 27, 2006 10:01:35 PM

Hello. I recently met a woman who was from Israel and she quoted a saying that means something from her home country, but doesn't make sense to an American. I wondered if you would know the meaning of the saying, "Keep running with your horse."? Since we met in passing, I have no way of getting back in touch with her. Thanks in advance for your time and effort. Christine

Posted by: Christine | Jul 29, 2010 8:30:38 PM

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