I love living in a small town. (Even if it’s only part time.) Everyone is friendly; everyone has something to say. This morning, I walked into a jewelry store to pick up a repair. I gave my name for identification, and a man having a new band attached to his watch, asked: “Oh do you live in Sherwood Forest?” “No, but near,” I answered trying not to make a Robin Hood reference. “New people by the name of Shapiro just moved in – must be a relative,” he continued. “I guess, if you go far enough back.” Thanking the salesperson, exiting the store, I added: “but when you meet these new Shapiros tell them there’s another one around.”
End of conversation, but not in my head. Inside, my grandmother and grandfather, Bessie and Louis, were alive. They came to the United States in the early 1900’s along with two million other immigrants from Eastern Europe. Like many of them, my grandparents’ last names were more a function of the whim of an immigration officer rather than a long family history. Not to confuse the issue too deeply, but my grandmother’s maiden name is Shapiro and my grandfather’s brothers are all named Ashepa. I sometimes wonder if my life would be different if my last name began with “A” instead of an “S” and I stood at the head of the line, was the first to be called on during attendance, sat in the first row?
We’ve lost the name of the little Eastern European town (shtetl) where Bessie and Louis met and married. And whatever relatives who stayed behind are gone – murdered gone – not just gone. But I want to think that their small town was like this one – where people smile and greet you as you walk down the street, where in the supermarket parking lot, shopping carts are returned to the “cart alley”, where the postal person knows your name and helps you tape your package.
I may be idealizing it all, but I like this niceness. There is a wonderful strand of Jewish behavioral teaching, called Mussar that says: You have been given this gift of life in order to repair the world: to leave it better than you found it. We call this Tikun Olam. The uniqueness of Mussar is that it teaches. We do this work of fixing by beginning with ourselves. And we change from the outside in. Do good deeds; act more kindly; speak with compassion; see the image of God in the person walking toward you, and you become a better person and each loving act repairs your self and the world.
It is a good thing for me to remember as we begin this month of Elul, beginning the month long preparation to welcome a New Year and a new opportunity to start again to build goodness into this cosmos. It is a good thing to remember as I return to “civilization”.