"You'll never believe what happened to me this afternoon," I said to my editor after returning from a meeting with the head of the local Jewish Federation over two hours after leaving to meet him.
"He happened to you," she said with a small smile, using his name.
I was walking to the Federation, I told her, when he shouted out his window, "Are you coming to see me? Get in." I did, and he announced we would go to the Sukkah of the local Hasidic rabbi and speak there.
"You have to warn me when people are insane," I chided my editor.
"You didn't tell me you'd be getting in the car with him!"
But I did, and soon we were a couple miles beyond downtown New London. There were about 20 people of all ages and observance levels sitting around two giant tables crammed into the Sukkah, and a meal was about to begin, less than a half-hour after I finished my lunch.
They ushered the Fed prez and me inside to wash. I've never done it, so I did not know the blessings. The rabbi's pale, slight wife talked me through the ritual as their eight children stomped in and out of the kitchen (they range from age three to 14, and seven of them are girls). I felt like I'd stepped out of the car and into Washington Heights or Williamsburg; the whole family was dressed to Orthodox modesty standards, and the wife wore a wig. They're the first Orthodox Jews I've seen since moving here in April. They are the only Hasidic family in the city.
The tables in the Sukkah were covered with a meat feast - steak, meatballs, pasta with chicken, stuffed peppers, sweet potato pie, challah... I sat erect, half-off my chair as I do when I'm uncertain as to what I should be doing. Fed prez began loading my plate with meat hunks. I told him I wasn't very hungry, and he said that I should just eat half of it for appearances' sake.
"It's my second lunch today too," he said, grinning and patting his Santa belly.
Commence festive meal, interspersed with the black-hatted, bearded Rabbi breaking into jolly song snippets and taunting the two (secular) Israeli teens visiting for the year when they didn't know the words.
(Side note: does anyone know how all those Hasidic men snag wives? Does anyone find those wispy beards attractive? Seriously?)
When the wife went in to prepare dessert, I followed to ask her advice on how to feed my Orthodox friends in this area without a Kosher kitchen should they come to visit. We ended up having a long, fun talk, but it gave me the sense that she's lonely. Her two eldest daughters live with grandparents to attend school in Brooklyn, and she home schools the rest with online resources. I asked who she socializes with, and she waffled a bit before saying that she talks to her sister on the phone a lot. I hear that; a good chunk of my social life is phone and gchat-based. But I'm not the sole Hasidic woman in an entire region. After, per her husband's wishes, she talked me through shaking the lulav, she asked if I was interested in studying Torah with her an hour a week.
I told her I didn't know, because I didn't have the heart to outright refuse.