In a world of increasing anti-Semitism, I recently met an unexpected advocate for Orthodox Jews. Michel King is a fifty-year old Irish Catholic woman with a passion for praising and defending the Orthodox Jewish community. That’s because some of her first friends in life (growing up in Borough Park, Brooklyn) were her Orthodox Jewish neighbors.
Apparently Michel’s parents weren’t seeking out Orthodox Jewish neighbors when they moved to their 50th street apartment back in 1960 (where they lived until 2004), but it didn’t take long for them to realize that most of the building – people like dear old Mrs. Tennenbaum – were kosher and Sabbath observant people.
They had never had any personal interactions with Orthodox Jews prior to their move, but Michel’s father, being a Protestant who hailed from Northern Ireland, knew all too well what it was like to be “different.” Their neighbors instantly made them feel at home.
Michel told me how growing up, she and her Orthodox Jewish friends would compare their “ugly” private school uniforms. (Michel went to Catholic school throughout childhood.) They would all commiserate when one of them inevitably got castigated by the principal for failing to meet their school’s modesty guidelines. What lessons did Michelle learn from being one of the only Catholic girls in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood? “People are really more alike than different,” she explains. Her brothers would play baseball in the streets with the Orthodox Jewish boys from the building after school most days.
Michel recalls rushing home on Friday afternoons to get dressed in her best clothes. “I was invited to many a Shabbos dinner as a child, teen, and adult….the hospitality was incredible,” Michel gushes. Chanukah was always a special time for Michel and her brothers to enjoy some homemade latkes and doughnuts from one of the families on their floor.
Did these relationships last, I wondered? Michel admits that once everyone grew up and moved away she lost touch with her childhood gang. A friend named Bleema settled on Long Island and started a family after high school; her mom would check in with Bleema from time to time until Michel’s mom passed away a few years ago.
Besides being surrounded by warm and friendly neighbors, what touches Michel most to this day is how the community took care of her family when her dad got sick. “The rabbis would always drop off meals for Mom,” Michel emotionally remembers. “Everyone on the block knew ‘Mary.’” Michel interjects, noting her mother’s popularity.
She has heard people criticize and mock the Orthodox community many a time over the years, but Michel is always first to come to their defense. “How can you judge someone you don’t know?” she always asks the critics.
A group of kind and friendly neighbors created a lifelong non-Jewish ambassador in Michel King for Orthodox Jews. We all have opportunities to show people outside of our community the kindness and respectfulness that are the foundation of our heritage and we should never waste a moment in doing so.