Cultural Acclimation

Q: My husband and I were born in a European country and we both came to America and became observant some 20 years ago. Baruch Hashem, we now have a family and have been living in a religious neighborhood for many years. However, all these changes in our lives have made us feel that we will always be “greeners.”

My children are affected by our lack of ability to “work the system.” For example, other people know about things like camp deadlines, and what high schools are looking for in “desirable” students … and I feel that we are missing the boat. I notice that sometimes my foreign accent makes people uncomfortable; maybe they don’t totally understand me. I see this especially when I speak to my children’s teachers. I myself am good with sciences, but not with languages. I can’t read Hebrew easily, and I guess that is a reason I don’t go to shul often. My husband and I are hard workers and, baruch Hashem, we both have good jobs.

I know that I can’t change the reality of who and where we are, but I need some advice on how to cope with this in a better way and not get resentful.

A: Human beings feel comfortable with what they become accustomed to. Your European accent may be difficult to understand; this may cause frustration to others (not necessarily a condescending reaction towards you). Yet, a different parent’s temperament may bother a teacher for another reason. Every person’s particular personality make-up creates a specific set of circumstances, whether simpler or more complicated.

What you may perceive as another’s advantage is your subjective reality. An American may be jealous of the way your children are more studious, obedient and less spoiled, due to your European background. Or perhaps your husband has a strong work ethic, and would not feel comfortable being unemployed for months at a time (which might be another person’s challenge).

One might feel that being born to wealth or an illustrious lineage are certainly great examples of being “privileged.” However, people in this situation do not always feel this way. When it comes to shidduchim, such a family always questions whether others are interested in the prospective chassan or kallah, or the “fringe benefits” that come with such a shidduch. (This is not to say that these people desire to give up their “privileged” status, but rather that it is not always clearly advantageous in all situations.)

It is true, however, that nearly everyone would select an easier challenge in life rather than a difficult one. If one could choose between a lifestyle of poverty or wealth, clearly one would choose wealth, as it ostensibly makes one’s life more comfortable and less stressful. Yet, the Gemara speaks of the nisayon of being wealthy as being a greater test than that of being poor. Questions such as how much tzedakah to give (does renovation of my house come before helping with another student’s tuition?) can plague a person with a conscience. Yet, most concur that they would take this nisayon and deal with it.

(In our contemporary generation, Rabbanim feel that it is a greater nisayon to be poor, as more families suffer from this challenge.)

Each individual needs to avoid the pitfall of self-pity by seeing that each of our situations was sculpted by Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Each of us needs to use our talents and potential to deal with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. This idea is expounded on at length in sefer Chovos Halevavos, in Shaar Habitachon.

When one navigates a new system, an experienced person at one’s side is of priceless value. Try to find some practical, down-to-earth neighbors (or mothers of children’s classmates) who can help you bridge the two cultures. This is particularly helpful and necessary when entering the sometimes overwhelming world of shidduchim. Anyone who undertakes this journey speaks to others to better understand the factors at play in this arduous process.

I am sure that you and your husband give of yourselves to others. Allowing people the opportunity to assist you in your cultural acclimation will give them the chance to do chessed as well.

Hatzlachah!