| Family First Feature |

Day of Defiance

We all know the unwritten rules and keep to them. But what if we didn’t? Five Family First writers tell us about the day they bucked a social norm

Bragging Rights

By Esty Heller

I always say, the thrill of an accomplishment is never complete before you’ve shared it with others.

To my consternation, it’s socially off to go around telling people how amazing you are. But if my editor turned defying societal norms into an assignment, who was I to say no? This was my chance to spend my day bragging about my accomplishments — real or imagined.

I gleefully select my prey. First up is my friend Sussy, who spends her winters dieting; if there’s anything that makes me feel despondent, it’s people who go on diets and exhibit unwavering self-control. This was going to be Sussy’s (sugar-free) just des(s)erts.

I try her twice in the morning but she doesn’t answer. She returns my call a little later.

“I see you called twice. What’s up?”

“Well, I just had to tell you. I lost weight!”

“Really?” Sussy asked, clearly skeptical. “I’m so happy for you.”

She didn’t believe me and she wasn’t happy for me. But never mind. For that alone she deserved a little torture.

“Yup,” I told her smugly. “Five more pounds down.”

She definitely believed me, as was evident in her emphatic reaction. “LIAR!”

“Uh-huh. You wouldn’t recognize me if you saw me now. I’m soooo skinny. I look like a teenager!”

“Hooooooow?” she whined. “What did you doooooo?”

“Well, it’s not exactly my credit. I’m fressing away. You know how it is when my babies get a little older. They eeeeat me up.”

I also told her I’m baking babka (which I actually did! Listen, this is Day of Defiance, allow me to brag. Of course, it was for the purpose of this article, ahem, ahem. There are only so many lies I can tell in one day, and also, there’s only so long you can talk about babka without having any), which I would certainly indulge in.

By the end of the conversation, Sussy vowed that she would be starting a tea diet the next week. She would drink tea any time she felt hungry, she was going to fast the next few months until her brother’s wedding, and she was going to do self-talk every day, about maintenance.

See? Bragging inspires. I was ready to move on.

Next up: my sister Blimie.

I started by boasting to her about my geshiktkeit. It was 10:30 Thursday morning, and I reported that my Shabbos cooking (including babka) was finished, and I’d already done a quick grocery run and washed and transferred two loads of laundry.

“Hooooow do you do it?” she wailed, like an echo of Sussy. “I’m sooooo tired in the morning!”

Nothing is more nerve-racking than a sister who has a sudden burst of productivity.

“Well,” I said. “I’m a geshikt person. I got Mommy’s genes.”

(Blimie, you know good and well that Leah inherited all of Mommy’s geshikt gene. How did you buy my bluff?)

Then I went on to tell her that my kids were all set with shoes for Pesach.

Blimie is a mother who kein ayin hara has many pairs of feet to clad. She believed this one as well — don’t ask me how. This conversation happened February 9. Do the shoe stores even have their summer shoes in? Would my children even be the same shoe sizes by the time summer rolled around?

I tried the babka brag on my friend Zivi next. Zivi lives with the illusion that I am some homemaking magician and turns to me for cooking and baking advice. I’m unfortunately never very helpful, but I thought my news would get her a little nervous. Hmm. If it did, she didn’t let on. She simply replied, Send me some.

Nah, wasn’t worth it. She didn’t even realize I was bragging.

My next victim was Gitty, a very devoted mother who also works out of the house every day. Gitty is very into parenting and will do anything and everything for the sake of her children.

Which is why I called her up and casually asked, “How often do you send mitzvah notes with your children to school?”

“Uh… once a week,” she replied. “Why?”

“Aha,” I said. “Because I’ve been thinking about sending my two little ones mitzvah notes every single day. Why not? It makes them so happy.”

I thought Gitty would be awed, but her reaction was totally unexpected: She went on the defensive.

“If you send a note every day, it loses its value,” she argued. Then she claimed that the teachers don’t appreciate it; it disrupts the routine. “I’m pretty sure I heard this is a rule in some schools,” she said. “And mitzvah notes don’t even excite my kids that much, honestly,” she added.

I was a little lost, because she was supposed to have been blown away by my phenomenal parenting. I must’ve paused an extra beat, because the next thing Gitty told me was, “Esty, you’re doing this for an article.”

Yeah, I surround myself with shrewd friends. She said my typing gave it away, as well as the way I wasn’t carrying the conversation but rather conducting it, like an interview. “You were hanging on too closely to every word I said.”

The best brag was when I told my friend Chany that I was thinking of cleaning out one shelf in my freezer for Pesach, and opening my Pesach kitchen for a day to get a head start on Pesach cooking. Chany and I go back a long way in terms of Pesach prep pressure. We are scared silly to admit having gotten anything done to each other, lest the other party blow up in panic.

She believed me. “Look, I realized that it really only takes two to three days to get all the Pesach cooking done. But if it makes you happy… gezunterheit.”

Defensive, like Gitty. She also must’ve been a little preoccupied, because her panic wasn’t too intense. But it would hit by the next day, no doubt, and I couldn’t handle her going to sleep thinking that my Pesach lokshen was done, so I spilled the beans.

Bottom line, I don’t know if I inspired anyone to bake babka that day, but I definitely got certain people nervous about shoes and one person swearing off food for the foreseeable future.

Which proved to me that bragging isn’t all that enjoyable after all. You end up staying with all your weight on, and everyone around you beats you with shopping, parenting success, and Pesach prep.


Tell Me More

By Ariella Schiller

I’M a big believer that the way to learn enough about people to successfully create relatable fictional characters is to keep your mouth closed and your ears open. Be that fly on the wall, listen more than you share, and people-watch when you can get away with it. Is this is coming off sounding creepy? No worries, I absolutely don’t do any of those things.

But when Mishpacha asked me to buck a social norm, I knew I’d have to break character and start over sharing.

Or just sharing. Either way, I had my work cut out for me: Sit next to a hapless victim woman and just start schmoozing, sharing, and breaking society’s unspoken rule — don’t act like you’re best friends with a complete stranger. Or DALYBFWACS for short.

My adorable niece is in sem here (we will protect the innocent and just name her seminary Nashim Tzidkaniyos). So when she invited me to their annual production, I was psyyyyyyyycheddd! Or, in non-seminary terms, really looking forward. Not just because I love watching frum women showcase their talents, but because I knew it would be the perfect place to defy social norms (i.e., dark).

I slide into my seat holding my baby just after opening scene ended, because the guy at the door had held me up, very politely insisting that there were no strollers allowed in the theater, and no, he didn’t care that this was the first time she had fallen asleep all day. Glancing sideways at the seats next to me, I see two young women, one holding a baby as well. Perfect. Oh gosh, why am I nervous? I clear my throat, thank Hashem for the dim lighting, and lean over.

“Your baby is heaven,” I say perkily to Woman One. I think she jumps. Note to self: Tone the perkiness down.

“Thanks,” she answers politely. I doggedly refuse to get the hint.

“Did I miss the opening scene? Uch, that was my niece’s dance. ’Kay, I think she’s in another one. But shoots, I can’t believe I missed it,” I moan.

She shrugs politely.

My niece scurries over. We do the requisite shriek, then hug. “Your dance was amazing,” I say, winking at Woman One.

She looks away.

“I’m kidding,” I quickly admit, “I missed it, but can’t wait to see your next one!”

She hurries backstage, and I turn back to Woman One. “So, who do you have in the play? Because I know you didn’t just schlep out here on a Tuesday to watch Nashim Tzidkaniyos.” I laugh like we’re BFFs.

“My sister-in-law,” she says.

I’m quiet, wondering what else I can possibly say to the stranger on my right. While the props girls pretend to be invisible and haul a well off stage, I turn back to Woman One. I think she sighs.

“Can you believe they did all this in a week and a half? I mean the dances, the choir, the costumes!”

She doesn’t deign to reply.

Okay, I need to calm down. I’m really not great at this. I fuss with the baby and when I turn back, Woman One has switched seats with Woman Two. Well, that checks out.

“You two are sisters?” I ask. “Where do you live? Ramat Eshkol?”

“Uh, Sanhedria,” she says.

“Sooo nice. Do you like it? Oh, look my niece is back onstage!”

We watch the dance in silence and I’m genuinely impressed; my niece is great.

“That was my first time seeing my niece dance,” I say to my new confidante. She pretends she doesn’t hear me.

“What were you in for seminary production? Oh, and which seminary did you go to?”

She went to Chachmas Nashim* and she plays piano, so she always headed choir.

“That’s amazing! My son took piano for about a year before Covid. We’ll probably try guitar soon, he’s so musical and cute.”

She nods.

My niece has a small part in drama, then there’s a scene where they interact with the audience. I figure I may as well go for broke, so I call back, and clap along when the performers motion to do so.

Basically, all the things I would never ever do.

I turn to smile enthusiastically at Woman Two, and… she’s gone.

“Yeah, that’s about right,” I say aloud.

Then I enthusiastically clap along alone. I think I frighten myself sometimes.

So if you sat next to me at the seminary play: I’m so sorry I scared you. Society has rules for a reason; I get it now.

Do you want to get tickets for Bnos Tzlafchad together next week, now that we’re friends?


Profile of Courage

By Hadassah Swerds

This experiment both intrigued and worried me. I’m all for defying social norms for a good cause like a magazine article, but I had a few teeny tiny problems, foremost aong them my location: I live in the Tristate area, where implementing a plan involving talking to straners is something that would cause more suspicion than comradery. Still, I decided to take the risk and go for it.

My goal for the day was to compliment total strangers as I was out and about. I loved this idea because I’m a big fan of sharing positive vibes, and having occasionally been on the receiving end of a compliment from a stranger, I know how meaningful it can be. Of course, my compliments would have to be sincere and honest; even the least perceptive person on the planet can spot a fake compliment a mile away, and then I wouldn’t be defying a social norm so much as being a menace to society.

There were other problems, too, like the weather. It is not lovely weather we are having, and I’m not strolling about streets dappled with sunshine as the birds sing in the background while I stop to compliment the kind-looking lady on her colorful scarf.

Nope, it’s cold and rainy, and I am hustling myself just as fast as I can to run my errands and get home to a hot cup of coffee as soon as possible.

Despite the wind and the rain, I force myself to stop and pay attention to the people around me and I realize that unfortunately, they are also in a rush to get their errands done and get home before their kids’ buses arrive. No one seems to be standing around waiting for me to compliment them, and I find myself at a loss. Do I tackle a stranger to the ground to let her know her boots are awesome? It doesn’t seem like a good idea but I run it by my editor just in case.

Day One on assignment was a bust, so I try something else on Day Two, while meeting a friend for lunch. The waitress who was serving us wore these really unique rings and a beautiful necklace, and I told her how much I liked them.

She seemed confused at first, but then smiled once she realized it was a legit compliment. I chalked one up for me, but one compliment to a stranger doesn’t exactly make me a Defier of Social Norms. Clearly, I had to try again.

On Day Three I tried to slow down a bit more but quickly discovered that this experiment wouldn’t work unless everyone else around me is slowing down, too. Tackling strangers was off the table but I also didn’t want to have to start jogging alongside random people who were in a hurry just to let them know that I like their pocketbooks.

I realized my potential compliment recipients were now limited to people sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, waiting on line to buy flowers, or waiting to check out in the grocery store. This was more difficult than expected because in case things got awkward, you were both still stuck there, unable to move past the experience until one of you left. Plus, I needed to genuinely admire something about them in order to get the ball rolling.

Still, I remained committed, and am pleased to report that I did indeed manage to compliment several people who were held hostage by life circumstances in the same waiting areas as me. For the most part, they seemed touched that someone would take the time to let them know that their sense of style was impeccable or that their baby was adorable.

I must admit, though, carrying out this experiment in a busy city in the Tristate area did cause more than one of the locals to freeze in surprise like a deer caught in headlights, startled that another human was attempting to communicate with them in public. That didn’t stop me, though. I was a woman on a mission. My Day of Defiance had evolved into a Week of Mild Rebellion, and I have to say, I’m proud that I did it.


Living on the Edge

By Shoshana Itzkowitz

Chapter One: The Email

It was a dark and stormy night. Okay, it wasn’t. It was a bright, sunny morning in early February, and I found an email in my inbox from one of my Family First editors. They wanted me to do something “socially off,” in teenage parlance, and then write about it.

How hard can that be? I thought. Adorable! Piece o’ cake! Yes, I typed back, I’ll do this, it’s so much fun! Stay tuned!

Chapter Two: Internal Conflict

Okay, we had a problem now. I had said yes, but I failed to remember one crucial little detail about Shoshana Itzkowitz.

I’m a rule follower. I fit neatly into all the boxes of social norms and nuances. I don’t do wonky. An assignment like this is great for the Esther Kurtzes of the world, but not for me.

I racked my brain trying to come up with a way of completing the assignment — which by definition meant that I needed to mortify myself — while not mortifying myself. Internal conflict, indeed.

Chapter Three: The Options

I had a few ideas. I could drive an hour and a half to Passaic (crazy right there) and surprise my sister at work with lunch for her and her coworkers.

I could call the mothers of some of my children’s friends and introduce myself, telling them what I like about their children.

I could call the wives of my boys’ rebbeim and sing each rebbi’s praises.

I could show up at my own adult daughters’ respective offices and announce myself to their bosses (with lattés and crinkle cookies in hand), detailing all the reasons why they are so unbelievably blessed to have an Itzkowitz girl on staff. (I liked that one.)

I thought these were all so way out there, so out-of-the-box, so defiant of social norms, and I felt myself warming to this out-of-my-comfort-zone assignment. I sent the list of options to one of my very creative sisters.

She emailed back several eye-roll emojis and wrote, “Blug… boring, boring, boring. Bring an umbrella on all your errands for one day and park at the far end of the parking lots, walking across the lots with an open umbrella — in beautiful weather. That’s defying social norms. Good luck!”

Yeah, okay, so no. I have kids in shidduchim, hello. Besides, everyone would just assume I was Mordechai Shapiro’s sister… he does that all the time, doesn’t he? I didn’t need people coming over for autographs.

Chapter Four: The Resolution

I stared out my window in despair, because it seemed like the perfect, clichéd thing for a conflicted, melancholy writer to do, and caught sight of some playgroup morahs in the park across the street pushing kids on swings. Those morahs are amazing, I thought, they work so hard, and they can never take a break.

Where I live, playgroup morahs have not been able to get substitutes for over a year now. If a morah makes the poor decision to catch the flu, she’s up the creek: either her husband or teenage daughter subs, or she works with 104-degree fever, or she needs to cancel school.


Hang on.

I flew out my front door and ran across the street before my brain could stop me.

“Hey!” I greeted one of the morahs, a friend of mine. “Howja like to take a break this Thursday?”

Whaaaat in the world was I saying?!

“What do you mean?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.

“This Thursday — you’re getting a well-deserved break. I’m taking your boys for 45 minutes. You can take a nap, go buy an iced coffee, shop for shalach manos, or just sit on your couch.”

Morah Miriam stared at me, waiting for the catch.

“Uhhhh… what are you charging?”

I spent the next five minutes explaining that this was just a social experiment: it was me defying social norms, offering someone something with no strings attached. I simply wanted her to get a break.

“You’re nuts,” she declared. “No one does that.”

Bingo! That’s all I needed her to say. I was now officially going to get that assignment done.

Chapter Five: How it Went Down

I ended up calling another morah down the block with the same offer. That call was a bit more awkward, because although we live in the same neighborhood and we’re friendly acquaintances, we’re not, like, friends friends. But while she found my offer highly irregular and confusing, she was still quite appreciative.

It wasn’t a big deal. At one-fifteen on Thursday afternoon there were about 35 three- and four-year-old boys in my house for 45 minutes. We played a game, told stories, had breadsticks and soda, and went outside for dismissal.

And that’s when the reeeeally strange looks started. To be honest, I hadn’t even been convinced that my little act of social irregularity was crazy enough to make the cut, but my neighbors thought otherwise. As did the mothers who came to pick up their kids.

“So… why would you do this?”

“What was the point?”

“Why wouldn’t you take money for that?”

“Do you want to watch my kids every Thursday and then write about it?”

But the best reaction was from my teenagers themselves when they heard about my day.

“MAAA! That’s literally socially off!!!!”

Aaaaaahhhh. Thanks, kids. At least now I know my editor can’t say I didn’t actually defy a social norm. We all know that the only ones who can legitimately assess social norms are teens, and they declared that I aced this one.

And you know what? I’m feeling the thrill of living dangerously. I think I may make those visits to my daughters’ bosses anyway….


Straight Talk

By Shterna Lazaroff

I naively agreed to strike up conversations with the people I met while doing errands.

And then immediately chickened out — even though I told myself it wasn’t actually chickening out. One day I only had a few minutes. What if the conversations took too long and I missed my meeting? Another day I was “tired” and asked my husband to pick up a few things on his way home instead.

After a week of procrastination, I realized it was deadline time. (Well, two days past, to be precise.) It was now or never. I walked into the fruit store and fumbled my way through peppers, hoping the cashier, who was the only other person in the store, would look up and catch my eye. But he was loading tomatoes instead.

I’d have to initiate, I realized.

I pointed to the citrus fruits next to his counter. “I bought some of those the other day. I thought they were pomelos, but they weren’t,” I said.

It sounds smooth when I write it now, but the sentence was actually quite stilted — I couldn’t remember the Hebrew word for grapefruits.

“Wait, so what is it?” he asked.

I still had no idea how to say it in Hebrew.

“It’s red inside,” I compensated.

“Ah? Eshkoliyot adom?” he prompted.

Yeah, yeah, I nodded, relieved he’d figured it out.

He whipped out a knife and sliced one in half. The grapefruit lay open in all its glory.

At tzodeket — it’s not a pomelo.” He put the open fruit on display near the others. “So many people asked me for this and I told them we didn’t have. I didn’t realize.”

“Remind me how to say it in Hebrew?” I asked, in an attempt to string the interchange along.

Eshkoliyot adom,” he repeated.

I told him that in English it’s called a grapefruit.

Huh? He was confused. “Like anavim?”

“Yes,” I said overconfidently, “because that’s actually how grapefruits are made — they’re a mix of grapes and oranges.” (Later I found out that grapefruits are actually a naturally occurring hybrid of oranges and pomelos.)

“It’s not natural,” I ended my science lesson.

He gestured to the tiny store. “None of this is,” he laughed. “Tomatoes in the winter? That didn’t happen a hundred years ago.”

“True, true,” I agreed as he finished bagging my produce.

Shabbat shalom,” I said.

Ani Aravi,” he replied.


Next stop. I took a deep breath and walked into the pharmacy to get lozenges.

Hashem loves me. I got off easy. “You’re already finished?” the cashier asked before I said a word. I’d been there for lozenges just the day before.

“Yeah, the cough’s pretty bad.”

Silence. Did that count as a conversation?

I noticed a cool paper-mache basket for pens on the counter. “Did someone make this?” I asked.

Her eyes lit up and she tipped out all the pens to show me. Apparently the basket was 25 years old and the woman who used to work there made it out of cardboard pieces. How exactly? We couldn’t work it out.

Believe it or not, we discussed that basket for a good five minutes. When I finally was ready to leave, she stuck a free hand cream into my bag.

To be honest — she gave me the same thing the day before. But I’d like to think that on the second day, I wasn’t just another customer. This time she gave me the hand cream because we’d become friends.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 833)

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