Stick a pin in the phonebook. See where it lands. Make the call. Does everyone have a story? Five writers find out
Perspective is real, did you know that? The whole glass-half-full, half-empty bit — people really do see the same things differently.
How did I come to this rather basic but profound revelation? I spoke to Mimi Gardenswartz. We both live in Passaic, neither of us native to the semi-urban landscape, and while we both have an abiding love for our chosen community, how we got here, and the way we view it, stand in polar opposition.
Mimi was my pin-in-phonebook test subject. Sort of. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to stick a pin through the pages. Does everyone else own super-strength pins, and have the muscle power to push one through?
I took my dog-eared Passaic telephone book, known colloquially as “the book,” raised it high above my head, and let it splat open to the floor of my kids’ bedroom. Then I picked it up to the open page, closed my eyes, and pointed.
For integrity’s sake, not only did I not use a pin, but Mimi was not the first person I called. The first person I called was eager, willing, and able to be interviewed — until she told her family. They weren’t comfortable with the story sharing.
She has a daughter in shidduchim, so I can’t grumble too much about family getting in the way of a good story. Because like it or not, frum society often punishes honesty when it comes to shidduchim.
I anticipated not getting a story out of my first contact, so I did the drop-and-point test ten times. I landed on Woman Number Five twice, which made me doubt the validity of the randomness (or the book’s binding), but I couldn’t do much about it. Number ten was my son’s teacher; I hoped I didn’t end up calling her. Too high a potential for what my 12th grade students would call “cringe.”
Numbers two to five were not available — either out, or sleeping, or just didn’t answer. Mimi was lucky number six, and she was sweet and gracious.
Honestly, I was a little skeptical of the premise of this theme. We all have stories, but some of us live lives like the old epic dramas, and others are more about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. Could we really find the threads in the ordinary in a brief phone call?
But Mimi did not fail me. We started at the very beginning, because that’s always a good place to start.
“I was born in Pittsburgh,” Mimi started. “I moved to New York for college, Stern. After I graduated, I moved to the Upper West Side, where I met my husband — he lived in the same building as me — and then we moved to the Bronx.”
“The Bronx?” I repeated. Because to me the Bronx is dead; it was dying more than a generation ago.
“Yes, Pelham Parkway.” The Gardenswartzes lived there for many years, raising their four children, until what I thought to be an old fact became evident to them: The Bronx was fading away.
“My kids had no one to play with, they traveled to Breuer’s for school, the shuls were merging.”
The family considered moving, but to where? “My daughter said, ‘The nicest people I’ve ever met were from Passaic,’ and that was that.”
Obviously I didn’t live in Passaic yet, and her daughter never met me, so I supposed her statement could stand.
“We didn’t do the normal things, like go for a Shabbos. We just looked for a house.”
And then her family moved across the Hudson River to Passaic. Mimi’s husband’s accounting job was in the city (that’s Manhattan for anyone out of town, there’s no other “city” that goes by “the city”), so that transition was easy enough.
“When we moved, the Passaic community sent over a welcome basket, the community was still small enough then. But even so… in the Bronx when you saw someone who looked Jewish, you just stared. In Passaic there were Jews everywhere, so many kosher facilities, shiurim, shuls, shopping.”
Mimi witnessed the blossoming of Passaic, as it grew from a small commuter community to a growing and thriving Torah center. To her, though, it was always vibrant.
It’s like my story is hers, just in reverse. I grew up in Brooklyn, married and moved to Lakewood, took a small detour in South Bend for a year, and then settled into Passaic.
Going small to big versus big to small makes all the difference. I often lament the lack of amenities in Passaic, but Teaneck is just 20 minutes away and Monsey is 30. If you think about it, that’s often shorter than getting from Boro Park to Flatbush… but still. To Mimi, though, Passaic is bustling, and that comes with a certain sense of anonymity.
“In the Bronx, everyone felt like they mattered, they made a difference,” Mimi said. “I don’t feel integral now.”
She’s not bitter about it, just matter of fact. “Here, you can contribute and be a part of anything you want to be, or you can sit back and be passive if you choose.”
You couldn’t do that in a small community like the Bronx.
I know this is true-ish to me. Coming from Brooklyn and Lakewood, people who were “involved” are types, otherwise known as “machers.” I’m not the type to lead community stuff or even be class mother, so it doesn’t bother me.
But in our small South Bend community, yes, everyone had the opportunity to shine, you didn’t need to be a marketer to get your ideas out; you could just raise your hand and say, “Sure, I’ll set up for the Melaveh Malkah,” and give everyone a chance to appreciate your creative flair without pushing yourself to the front of the room.
Now, in Passaic, I still won’t volunteer as class mother (phones scare me), but opportunities abound if I want to get involved. I’m friendly with the head of one of the Nesheis, and when I have an idea, I just text her (Simi — we must revisit my idea from last year!), which seems radical to me, coming from the gated entries of Brooklyn and Lakewood.
Mimi and I both agree, whatever you do in Passaic, you’re doing for yourself, because nobody cares. Dress your kids in matching outfits from a frum store, or wear eight-seasons-ago hand-me-down Carters; it’s all the same.
“What else do you write?” Mimi asked me in a conversation lull. I tell her I do some content writing for businesses.
“Oh, I write poetry,” she tells me.
We talked shop for a little, lamenting that most magazines don’t publish poetry (cough, cough, Family First).
So she’s a writer too.
And a teacher, just like me. She taught first grade for many years.
And her father was a printer, just like mine.
There are so many parallels, it’s uncanny. We’re just coming from different directions, landing in the same space.
Mimi is unabashed about her love for Succos. “I always make sure to find quiet time to sit in the succah, there’s something so special about sitting under the sky, to contemplate, meditate. Breathe in the moment.”
As she speaks, I can feel the cool breeze wafting through the sechach, brushing across my cheeks and calming me. I know that Succos feeling too, but I’m usually too busy doing to just be.
Her love of Succos started when she was a child, she says. “My father always said that when he owned a house, he’d have a succah.”
The family moved into their home right after Yom Kippur. Mimi’s father built a succah out of the French doors that were once ubiquitous in their neighborhood but were becoming passé. Many of their neighbors were happy to give them away.
“It was succah made out of doors with windows. It was the most beautiful succah ever — there was so much light.”
Mimi helped decorate the succah, putting up those classic paper chains. Her mother would prick eggs on both sides and remove the yolk. Mimi and her sister would paint the shells, then string them across the succah.
Another parallel. My father used to decorate my family’s succah extensively. He painted portraits of gedolim that hung in my grandparent’s succah for many years. I never really thought about the memories and meaning he was creating, just took their existence for granted.
Listening to Mimi reminisce about her childhood succah, I feel nostalgic for my parents’ succah. I wonder: What kind of a succah am I giving my kids? I decorate the succah plenty, but it’s my domain; I usually keep the kids’ arts and crafts in those corners that the door hides when it’s open.
Mimi’s almost exactly double my age. Speaking to her feels like a peek into my potential future, if I just let myself go there, if I let go of the cynicism and embrace the wonder. No epic drama — just the day-to-day joy and appreciation of life and where it takes you.
My editors often talk about stories being either mirrors or windows. For me, Mimi’s story was both a reflection and opportunity.
Hey, Mimi, let’s keep in touch, see if we can turn this small feature into a winding story.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 712)
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