In Park Slope, a tale of coexistence and toilet training.
On Friday nights I get to my girlfriend Brenda’s Park Slope clapboard and welcome Shabbos with her and her 3-year-old daughter Marta. I stay through the weekend and on Monday mornings will walk Brenda and Marta to Rida’s two-story house, where Marta and several other children will spend the day.
Rida, a stout, round-faced, grandmotherly 54-year-old, greets us. “Hello, sweetheart,” she says to Marta, in her Palestinian-accented English. Grabbing Brenda’s legs Marta says, “I don’t want you to leave.”
“Do you want oatmeal?” Rida says joyfully, as Marta releases her mother’s legs and runs to the kitchen, as Brenda and I sneak out the door.
Rida, whose Arabic name is Widad, left her Jerusalem village at 16 and immigrated to Brooklyn with her husband. She has eight children, all of whom were raised in her Park Slope home, which is where she has run her day care service for 27 years.
Marta came to Brooklyn almost two years ago, after being adopted by Brenda from Russia. She started attending Rida’s day care within weeks of her arrival.
Brenda and Rida seemed like an odd pair to me. After all, while Rida is a practicing Muslim, Brenda is shomer Shabbos and the daughter of a rabbi.
But Rida was an easy choice for Brenda. “I wanted a heimishe atmosphere for Marta,” Brenda explained, using the Yiddish word for cozy.
I sometimes pick Marta up from day care, and on these occasions I experience Rida’s heimishe persona. Marta will typically linger with toys, as I try to rush her out the door, thinking that Rida surely wants to get on with her evening. “I want to play,” Marta will say.
“Please, sit down,” Rida will say to me. “Can I get you something to drink?”
I never refuse an invitation to sit with Rida, as her presence relaxes me. “So, how are you?” she will ask, her round face exhibiting a wide smile, that is always present, but somehow seems specially crafted for whomever she is speaking to.
Her voice is loud and slightly craggy, in a way that conveys enthusiasm. A slight chuckle trails her sentences.
“Marta, will you give me a kiss?” she will ask as I coax her away from the toys. Marta, who is stingy with her kisses refuses, but crawls on Rida’s lap and buries her head in her caretaker’s bosom.
On the walk home Marta recalls her day: “Guss got an ouchy on his knee,” she’ll say.
“How did that happen,” I’ll ask.
“Did you go on the potty?”
“I made a pee pee. Rida give me lollypop.”
To Brenda, Rida serves as a sage of child-rearing. She has diagnosed Marta’s allergies, fevers and colds, while recommending their cures.
She is toilet training Marta and has taught Brenda the fine points of administering a time-out. One evening while Marta was bathing I noticed a nasty rash on her back and urged Brenda to call a doctor.
“Rida says it’s nothing,” Brenda said, ending the conversation. The rash disappeared within a day.
But Rida’s main value has been as a cheerleader. When Marta arrived from Russia she was diagnosed with cognitive and physical delays. She received therapy, but by age 2 she barely talked and was constantly falling.
Brenda, who at 46 was a first-time mother, was worried about her daughter. I had no parenting experience, so Brenda looked to Rida for support.
“Don’t worry,” Rida would say with a dismissive wave. “She’ll be caught up in six months.”
Marta recently tested above average in cognitive skills and no longer needs speech therapy. She still requires physical therapy, but now races around the block on a scooter.
“This is because she goes to a family day care,” Rida said proudly, when told of the latest test results.
Rida plays such a constructive role in Marta’s life, it no longer seems strange to me that an observant Jew would trust a Muslim to help raise her child. Rida is the only Arab-Israeli I know, and her kindness has encouraged me to look through the barrier of cultural misunderstanding. About 60 percent of Rida’s clients over the years have been Jewish, including a rabbi who wrote a letter that Rida showed me. “How do you thank someone for loving your child?” the letter begins.
Rida recently shared an anecdote from a trip to the Middle East that demonstrates the intransigence and folly of the reflexive distrust so many Jews and Arabs have of each other.
She was crossing from Jordan into Israel, when an Israeli border guard, perplexed that Rida had an American passport, called over a supervisor.
“What do you do in America?” the supervisor asked.
“You wouldn’t believe what I do,” Rida said. “I help raise Jewish children in New York. … And would you believe it if I told you I love them like my own children?”
Rida’s devotion to the children in her charge certainly comes through in her care of Marta. It is unsettling for me to think that when Marta starts pre-K next fall we won’t have Rida to rely on.
Still, it is good to know that Rida will continue to spread her warmth to the families she serves. “The Koran says respect your neighbor,” she once told me, by way of explaining her attitude towards Brooklyn’s diversity. “It doesn’t say respect your Muslim neighbor, it just says neighbor.”
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