Her name was Irina, but her family called her Ira. When I first met her, she was ten years old, spoke flawless English, while sporting a Russian accent, and saw the world through the most beautiful sapphire blue eyes I had ever seen. My husband and I had been married just over four years, our oldest daughter—now 28—had recently turned three, and I was expecting my second. We lived in a beautiful third floor apartment in Chicago. Each month, as my pregnancy got farther along, our apartment would seem higher and higher up from the ground. Never more so than when I returned from shopping, and I had to schlep bags and bags of groceries up to that high third floor, with a kvetchy toddler in tow.
Back then, I was the sort of neighbor that pretty much kept to herself. I lived in an all-frum building—the ladies there became my best friends, and our children were as close as cousins. So I didn’t feel the need or desire to take any time to get to know anyone else on my block. Back in Chicago in the 1990’s, our area received a large influx of Russian Jews who were determined to have a better life. Though I kept to myself, I had been noticing how our block seemed to teem with more Russian Jews than any other culture—frum people included. As with most cultures, each group primarily kept to themselves. While I was fascinated with the changes going on, I remained as I always had been—not going beyond my building for social interactions, and instead, I quietly observed the groups of Russians from a distance.
Summer rolled around, and I noticed a large group of Russian children, between 10-12 years old, pretty much left to fend for themselves on the long summer days, while their parents went to work to try and make a living in this new country. Each day, while I took my daughter outside, I sat on my stoop—sometimes with my friends from the building, sometimes alone—and watched my daughter play. Invariably, I always kept an eye on that large group of rag-tag children. By the middle of summer, though I had never said more than a quick “hello”, while flashing a quiet smile towards them, I surprisingly knew quite a lot about them. I had picked out Irina as their leader, even though she was by far not the oldest of the group—she outweighed that fact with her clever ideas, bold demeanor and mature stance that surpassed her years. I also knew, that just as fascinated as I was by them, that group of children—Irina especially—were equally fascinated by me! I surmised that I must have been one of the first frum people they had had a chance to watch and observe up-close.
On one particularly hot Thursday, I had been grocery shopping with my daughter, and had come home exhausted. I remember sitting in my parked car, letting the air conditioner blow cold air on me, while my daughter squirmed and complained. I felt so tired and wrought that I almost cried thinking about lugging those bags and bags of groceries up the three flights of stairs. Leaving them in the car until my husband came home later was not an option—as all the refrigerated foods would surely spoil in the heat by then. I sat in the car and mindlessly watched Irina and her gang play their games together. Then I had an idea. To the relief of my daughter, I finally shut the car off and heaved myself out. I took her by the hand and approached the group of children.
“Hi,” was all I had to say to them.
I watched as each one of them got quiet and turned surprised, frozen faces at me. Though I was the only adult in the picture, I felt younger than most of them, as I was struck dumb with mild intimidation. I wobbled a smile towards them, but it didn’t help. The only movement was when Irina came to stand in the front—wordlessly announcing that she was their leader. If I hadn’t been so overwhelmed, I might have congratulated her on her show of bravado. Instead, I got right to the point, knowing I had nothing to lose.
“I have a business proposition to offer you all,” I began.
Without looking back over her shoulder to the other kids, Irina quickly translated what I had said, and I saw some eyebrows rise with curiosity. They all waited. I cleared my throat and began.
“I can’t carry my groceries up to the third floor by myself, and I will pay whoever can help me—twenty-five cents a bag. You can leave them by the door, and I’ll pay you right away. Who wants the job?”
“Okay,” Irina told me quickly, while turning around to the group and giving me her back.
I watched as she rattled off to them in Russian like a military officer. Then she took it upon herself to hand-pick her team. Several children started to complain to her, but with a few harsh, “nyet“’s, she efficiently took charge, and let everyone know it was her choice who took the job.
She turned back to me and announced, “Okay, I have us four to do this job.”
I smiled with relief and showed her my car. Like soldiers, they marched off to carry the groceries, with Irina barking orders in Russian. My groceries were all carried up faster than I could walk up the stairs with just my daughter!
When I arrived at my landing, I opened the door and invited Irina in. I told her I was going to pay her and her friends now. Without asking, she proceeded to help my three year old carry in the bags to my dining room table. When I opened my wallet to take out the money, she shocked me.
“No, thank you. We cannot take your money.”
I stared at her incredulously. “Why ever not? You earned it fairly!”
“Well,” this wise little girl began. “We did this to be nice to you, and the ones who carried the bags didn’t even know you offered money. I didn’t tell them. See, they did it because they wanted to. How can I only give out money to those who did the job, while the others who didn’t get to watch us with jealousy?”
I was awestruck at her natural middos. I recovered quickly, as I profusely thanked her and told her to go back downstairs and invite all the children in her group—both the ones that helped and the ones that didn’t—to come up to my apartment for a little party of cookies and juice. With a beautiful grin, she raced down, and up they all came! I broke open some store-bought cookies, crackers, and apple juice, and we all sat around the table, eating and getting to know each other. My daughter was delighted and couldn’t suppress her excited squeals as each child ooed and ahhed over her. Irina was our translator—our bridge to communication. I asked questions, the children asked questions, and after an hour and a half, they were all my fast friends. Impulsively, when I walked them to the door, I invited them back for the Friday night seudah. (I had confirmed earlier that they were all Jewish.) I asked if they knew about Shabbos. They all had vague ideas of what it was, but each child was so very excited to come.
I worked hard that night and the following day, preparing my Shabbos food with such renewed kavanah! The next day, the children came early—each one so very eager to either help me prepare by peeling vegetables for the salad or by playing with my daughter so she wasn’t underfoot. When it was time to bench licht, they gathered around me, and it was so very endearing and special. When I finished the brocha, and turned to them to wish them their first “Good Shabbos”, Irina had tears in her eyes.
“You do this every week?” she asked, mesmerized.
“Yes,” I replied, smiling. And then the words tumbled out, “And you are all welcome to come for Shabbos anytime you’d like!”
And they did! Week after week, we had regular guests for Shabbos! Each week was a different mix of kids, but the steady guest who never missed one—was Irina. The children always arrived early to help prepare, and then watched as I lit the candles. Then Irina began to come during the week just to hang out with me and my daughter. Sometimes she’d bring one of the others, and sometimes she’d come alone. Irina became an amazing friend, helping me learn Russian and about her culture. And all of the children learned English from speaking with me. My daughter had a house-load of adopted big brothers and sisters! After a month or so, some of the parents began showing up to meet my husband and me, since their children had been spending so much time with us. We eagerly invited the parents to join us for Shabbos—never once did they, but they gave their thanks to us for having their children over.
When the Yamim Tovim arrived in the early fall, it was fun for my husband and me to explain and introduce these children to their heritage. And then it was time for Sukkos. Living on the third floor, my husband knew I couldn’t keep walking up and down the stairs to the sukkah in my condition, so he decided to build a little sukkah on the back landing, between the second floor neighbor and us. Our building of friends all laughed that my husband must have built the smallest sukkah in the world. Their joke was appropriate because it could barely fit two people around a tiny folding table. However, it was close to our kitchen, and it was kosher. I was sorry for my Russian friends that this year—their first Sukkos ever—we wouldn’t be having a large, ornate sukkah—and I told them that most sukkahs are larger than the one we were building. I explained to them about the mitzvah of decorating, and they were so eager to have their homemade arts and crafts grace our sukkah, as a thank you for having them over so often.
My husband and I hurriedly decorated the small sukkah the afternoon before the first night, and then Irina and the children came over to light with me. Afterwards, when my husband left for shul, I took the children into the sukkah to see the handiwork of their contributions. Their reaction is something I will never forget. You would think they had entered the most opulent of castles! And perhaps they had! Their eyes were shiny with tears, and their mouths hung open as they each gushed about how amazing it was. I tried to explain how other people’s sukkahs are much nicer—and bigger! But they wouldn’t hear it. The wondrous look upon their faces told me that they felt Hashem there, and for them, they were indeed in the most opulent of castles! When it came time for the seudah, I don’t know how it happened, but they all squeezed in there to eat their meal!
It’s been many years since that apartment and those special, charming times. Eventually, Irina moved away, and then my husband, children, and I moved into a house nearby. Though I’m still in touch with Irina every few years or so, I can never put into words how much she and her friends meant to me. Our connection and intense friendship might not have been as much about Irina as it had been about me. For as important a part of her childhood that I had become, she, in turn, had become an immense part of my early adulthood. I learned so much from her and her friends that even to this day, just thinking about her brings tears to my eyes and a beautiful warmth to my heart that can never be fully described. Those many Shabbosim and Yamim Tovim that we spent together were nothing short of magical. Irina’s amazing neshama forced me to open up my eyes and heart, and to view my frum world in a way which I had never done before. The powerful, ethereal energy of that is still with me today, in so much of what I do, and how I feel!