When Risa* showed up at our door, two hours into moving day, with a platter piled high with homemade chocolate chip cookies, I promised my nine-year-old self that I would always be that kind of neighbor. And twenty plus years later, I certainly am! I love an excuse to bake (there will always be an extra batch for my own freezer) and there’s nothing quite like oatmeal cookies or brownies and a hearty introduction to welcome new neighbors.
I was recently chatting with Tova, a new friend of mine, who lamented that she was having trouble connecting with her next-door neighbors. “I just don’t understand,” she said sadly, “I really try to be friendly, and so does my husband, but they just don’t seem interested. It seems like they run away when we try to schmooze in the hallway.” Tova paused for a moment and looked thoughtful. “Maybe it’s hard for them that we have five kids in our apartment and they don’t have any…I think they got married before us actually….I wonder if that could be it?” Not being in the mood for personal revelations, I merely nodded. “Tova, I’m SURE that’s what it is. Please don’t take it personally.” What I didn’t say was: I’ve been that unfriendly neighbor.
We got married and moved into apartment 3A. Next door, 3B, was under construction but quickly occupied by a raucous group of single Israeli guys. (They gratefully devoured the baked goods we brought them.) Their late-night partying and plethora of beer bottles in our shared recycling cans didn’t bother us so much; after all, we were hoping to soon be contributing our own noise with a crying baby. A year later, that baby was still nowhere to be seen and the guys were packing up, to be replaced by a quiet newlywed couple, Dina and Yaakov, from the local kollel. I welcomed Dina with a tray of strawberry muffins and looked forward to becoming friends. We schmoozed in the hallway and sometimes borrowed an egg or squirt of dish soap from each other; things felt quite genial and neighborly. Eleven months later, when they brought their baby boy home on a Friday afternoon and we were regaled through our shared walls with crying and cooing, my husband and I looked at each other and without speaking made an instant joint decision to go away for Shabbos. By that time our highly fertile (or so it seemed) building was closing in on us: Bina in 2C just had her second on her second anniversary (Irish twins!), newlywed Frieda was expecting already…strollers littered our shared entrance and the communal recycling bins were stuffed with bulk Pampers packages. (We had never missed beer bottles so much.) It didn’t help that the building’s elderly widow repeatedly applauded me for exercising prudent family planning, “unlike the rest of them, clearly.” When Rivky and Dovid Goldberg (I actually have no idea what their names are, I made them up) moved in at the end of their Sheva Brachos, I wasn’t baking anymore for new neighbors. By that point, I was barely saying hello.
With time and medical attention we have, thank God, been blessed with children of our own. But I will never forget the rainy day, several months after the Goldbergs had moved in, that Rivky and I awkwardly bumped into each other in front of the building, umbrellas protecting our sheitels. She kindly introduced herself and pointed out the obvious: “We’ve never met.” I saw the hurt in her eyes and averted my own. I returned the introduction, mumbled some incoherent apology, and hurried off to my car. I don’t believe we conversed again.
The thing is, I was just afraid of getting hurt. Of still being panicked and childless in another year while she joined the baby parade…so it was easier to stop making an effort. That being said, the young mothers were all lovely people who never meant any harm at all. Just the opposite- I found them to be quite sensitive. To Dina in 3B: thank you for quietly taking down the mazel tov signs that friends left on your door, for keeping Avrumi’s stroller tucked inside your own apartment, for gently changing the topic away from feeding schedules when you saw me approaching the throng of schmoozing women on the front steps on my way out the door. We never blamed your baby for making noise through the walls. To Tova: don’t lose heart. Give your neighbors some space, daven for them, and (if you don’t do so already) be sure that they never have to trip over your double stroller or Amazon Mom deliveries to get into their apartment. And to Rivky, whoever and wherever you are: I owe you a plate of brownies.
*All names have been changed for this article. Bracha, who feels very blessed, is writing under a pseudonym.