Danny and I had been dating for two years when we decided to move from New York to Los Angeles. In LA, there are two big Jewish areas – Pico-Robertson and La Brea – and we wanted to go where it was more affordable. So we chose Pico.
Upon looking around the neighborhood, we were disappointed to find that the centrally located apartments were a fortune. So we ventured a little outside the “chood” as it’s called, and found a two-bedroom apartment for below market value. We signed the lease that day.
Danny and I spent the next six months walking two miles round trip to shul every week, not being able to invite anyone over because we were too far away for most families. We sang “Shalom Aleichem” in harmony on Friday nights while blaring music from nearby quinceanera celebrations poured through our windows.
These first months in LA were tough because we felt so isolated. We were different in other ways as well, because our backgrounds were atypical. I was converting, and Danny was returning to observant Judaism following a long hiatus.
Every time we walked to synagogue on Shabbat, we would look at all the doors of the houses in our community for mezuzahs. There was only one home in our neighborhood with a mezuzah. But Danny and I were too afraid to just knock on their door, thinking we’d come off as strange.
And then something changed. We were on our way to synagogue once again, feeling disappointed because we were about to go into another Friday night celebrating alone. Danny told me he was going to knock on the door. I was hesitant, but he grabbed my hand, led me up the driveway, and we knocked together.
When the door swung open, we were met with a big smile and a bigger belly – this stranger, a lovely woman wearing a tichel who was obviously very pregnant – exclaimed, “Hi!”
“Hi, we’re your only Jewish neighbors,” said Danny.
The woman laughed. “We are the Shapiros. Nice to meet you. Menachem, come say hi!”
Menachem, the woman’s husband, came out to shake Danny’s hand. “That’s my wife Miriam. Nice to meet you,” he said.
Two little girls and a boy came rushing to the door to say hello. We introduced ourselves and said that we’d love to hang out sometime. Purim was the next week, and Miriam invited us over for it. “The theme is ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ so dress accordingly,” she said.
We took down Menachem’s number, and upon seeing his 410-area code, I told him I was also from Baltimore. We had grown up only a few towns over from one another. We wished each other “Shabbat Shalom,” and they all went inside to prepare for dinner.
When Purim came around, we walked over to the Shapiros and were greeted with the same enthusiasm from before. We realized we had been invited over to an intimate family gathering, even though we were complete strangers. That night, we met the uncles, the cousins, and Miriam’s mother and had fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw. At the end of the meal, Miriam invited us over for Shabbat in a few days. We accepted.
As the sun went down that Friday night, we knocked on the Shapiros’ door and Miriam opened it, exclaiming, “Hi!” She gave me a big hug. “It’s kind of crazy here now, but we will start soon,” she said.
I saw children with wet hair running around, asking where the combs were, playing with their dolls and trucks, saying they were hungry. Miriam and Menachem took it all in stride, answering every single child calmly while making sure we had glasses of water.
Finally, it was candle lighting time and kids came out of their rooms in their finest dresses and suit. They stood on chairs to light the candles with Miriam. I joined them.
During “Shalom Aleichem” the whole family danced around the table, the kids riding piggyback on Menachem. I thought, this is it. This is how it’s supposed to be. Danny and I smiled at one another.
We became fast friends with the Shapiros, spending nearly every Shabbat and holiday together. We watched their family grow – they had another daughter a month after we had met – and I would frequently babysit for them.
Danny, who is a comedian, would test out material at their table that he would then go on to tell on big shows around LA. If Miriam and Menachem and the kids were cracking up, we knew it was good. “Danny, your whole life is one big story!” one of the daughters would always say.
It continued this way for three years, and we grew closer and closer and celebrated milestones together. We went to their son’s upsherin and held a party when Menachem got another law degree. They were the first people we showed our pet chicken to and when we moved into a new place two blocks away from them, we gave Miriam a tour before it was even furnished.
When Danny and I got married, Miriam was one of my bridesmaids, and did the ceremonious plate breaking with Danny’s mom for me, since my mom couldn’t make it to our wedding. Menachem signed our ketubah as a witness.
Being around the Shapiros made us grow as people and as religious Jews. Previously, we didn’t have role models to look up to, and they provided us with inspiration. Danny and I knew we wanted to be like them one day. We wanted to create a loving environment and invite strangers into our home for some warmth.
A few months after Danny and I got married, Miriam sent me a text that she needed to talk to us. I knew this meant that something was wrong. She asked Danny and I to meet her at her house.
She sat us down on the couch, and proceeded to tell us how Menachem had accepted a job offer… in New York. They were moving in six months.
Miriam was crying as she was telling us this, so I gave her a tight hug, closed my eyes, and felt tears falling down my cheeks. When I opened my eyes, I saw that Danny was crying as well.
I could see how hard it was for Miriam to be leaving LA, where she had grown up. I pulled it together and tried to be positive. I said six months was a long time and that no matter what we would stay in contact and still be best friends. I said that New York was awesome and how happy I was for Menachem. “I know,” she said. “I know.”
And then we all kept crying.
The six months went by very quickly, and then the Shapiros were gone. They sold their house, and off they went to the Big City.
The first Friday night dinner without them was the hardest. I knew it would be, so I intentionally invited over 10 people, a few of them I hardly knew. They were mostly nonobservant people whom I knew would love a nice, warm Shabbat dinner.
When we sang “Shalom Aleichem,” I clapped along, dancing in spot, thinking of Miriam and Menachem and the kids.
Miriam and I kept our promise to each together, and are in touch nearly every day. I see the kids growing up on FaceTime and hear about all of Menachem’s success at work.
The Shapiros may be physically far away, but they are always with Danny and I. They are with us when my husband tells his funny stories at the table and I imagine them laughing along. When people say they need a Friday night invite, I think of what the Shapiros would do, and always invite them over on the spot. When we are having a tough time with observance, I think of how positive the Shapiros were about Judaism and try and find the upsides myself.
Being 3,000 miles away isn’t such a big deal, because no matter what, they are always close by.