How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who's Sick

Author, Letty Cotton Pogrebin

One morning while I was still doing time in the waiting room, an elderly Hasidic man —black hat, long white beard, ear curls — sat down kitty-corner to me and opened a book printed in Hebrew, a language I speak poorly but read well enough to recognize the word Shoah — Holocaust — in its title. The opportunity to interview a member of an insular religious community wasn’t going to fall in my lap every day, so I begged his pardon and asked if he would answer some questions for the book I was writing about friendship and illness.

No response. He was a reader; shouldn’t he want to help a writer? Was he purposely ignoring me, or did he not understand English? I tried again, this time inserting a few words of mamaloshen (the mother tongue) so he’d know I was a member of his tribe.

“I’m sure you’ve got tsuris [troubles] like I’ve got tsuris or you wouldn’t be here,” I said softly. “I wish you a refuah shlaymah [complete recovery] but right now I need help. All I want is a word or two about how your friends have related to you since you got sick.”

He stroked his beard but his eyes never left the page. “Could you at least talk to me about the halacha [Jewish law]? I know it says we’re commanded to visit the sick, but does it say for how long or how frequently?”

At this, he looked up. It was obvious that I wasn’t from his world; no proper Hasidic wife would wear hip-hugger jeans and leave her hair uncovered. “Go ask your rebbe,” he said. “I don’t know the halacha. I’m just a tailor.”

Chuckling, I replied, “Even a poor tailor is entitled to a little halacha.” You might recognize that I was channeling Motel the Tailor in “Fiddler on the Roof,” but the old man didn’t crack a smile; he had no idea what I was talking about.
And why would he? The only time I’d seen a Hasid at a Broadway show was when an actor played one onstage