Strangers share an emotional connection at a Chicago kosher restaurant

Roberta Kwall and her mother.

By Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, Special to Chicago Jewish News

On the Thursday before Rosh Hashanah, I had the opportunity to meet with Rabbi Reni Dickman, the new Executive Vice President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the first woman to hold this position.  I was very excited to spend some time with her and hear about her vision for the Board and her new educational initiatives. I suggested to Rabbi Dickman that we meet at Emma’s Café in Skokie because the location worked for both of us and truth be told, I never pass up an opportunity to enjoy an Eggel Bagel Deluxe on a whole wheat Jerusalem Bagel.  

Rabbi Dickman and I spent a wonderful couple of hours together discussing a wide-ranging number of issues related to Judaism.  But as two working wives, mothers and daughters, we inevitably also turned our attention to our personal narratives and the balancing act that is so familiar to many women. After she departed for her downtown office, I decided to stay for an hour or so longer so that I could do some class prep before heading back home and tackling the mountain of errands I needed to do prior to the holiday chaos that was about to set in. As I began to dig into some reading for my next Family Law class, I quickly became distracted when a woman walked in with an elderly woman in a wheelchair and a caregiver. After an initial glance, I just couldn’t take my eyes off this trio.

The younger woman was wearing modest clothing, a long skirt and long-sleeved top. The elderly woman, whom I quickly discerned was her mother, wore a comfortable knit, polyester type of pant suit that is so common among women of her age.  Part of what drew my attention initially was that the mother was clutching a teddy bear that sported a kippah, probably given to her by one of our local Jewish organizations.  I recalled that my own mother had one that seemed identical. The daughter lovingly doted on her mother by smoothing a shock of her gray hair that had been tussled by the autumn wind and scurried around the restaurant to order lunch for the table.

I starred at them for several minutes and reflected a bit more on some of the things I had shared with Rabbi Dickman about my own mother. One of the things we had discussed was how hard all Jewish holidays can be for those of us who have lost loved ones. And then an intense sense of sadness, even pain, welled up as I realized that no more than four years ago, I literally was this daughter.  My mom’s facility was not too far from Emma’s and from time to time since she moved to Chicago, I took my mom out for lunch here with her caregiver. After my mother’s mobility became more compromised, these outings became more difficult but we still managed once or twice even after she was bound to a wheelchair.

Suddenly the daughter approached the coffee station which was very close to my table. Without thinking too much about it, I went up to her and shared my story.  I instinctively knew it would be safe for me to do this, and that her reaction would be sympathetic. Still, I was unprepared to find tears streaming down both of our faces as I spoke to her. She hugged me and I hugged her back.  Here we stood — two complete strangers having a rather intimate moment of connection. One of us having already experienced the unbearable, and the other knowing that at some point she would too. 

We then chatted for a few minutes and discussed where lived and went to shul.  I learned that she was also a working mother and daughter, and undoubtedly no stranger to that balancing act that I had just been discussing earlier with Rabbi Dickman. Though our synagogues represented distinct denominations, I intuitively sensed that our commonalities were much greater than our differences. We then played Jewish geography and of course, discovered we had friends and acquaintances in common. She then insisted I come meet her mother.  Finally, we wished one another a sweet New Year and a good Shabbos, expressing the hope that our paths would cross again at some point in the future.

I was truly unprepared for the strong emotions stirred up by seeing another daughter in the exact same situation I had been in not all that long ago. These emotions allowed me to form an instant kinship with this woman. The connection we made that day was not just based on the reality that we accompanied our mothers and their caregivers to lunch at Emma’s. It was also based on something much greater, namely, our mutual experience as committed Jewish women honoring our mothers.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of ‘Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World’ (Rowman & Littlefield) and ‘The Myth of the Cultural Jew’ (Oxford U. Press).

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