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Tzedakah Loves Company

September 11, 2013

Subba Family
Heather (left), Ama, Bua and Roen Subba
In my interfaith partnership, life has been filled with surprises. Family visits are one of these surprises. Every year for six months, my Nepali in-laws come to live with my husband, me and our two small children. This arrangement can either highlight every detail that makes us different or it can illuminate what makes us similar.

Living with any in-laws can be an adjustment, but living with mine takes on an added challenge because of our cultural differences. Not only do we speak different languages, practice different faiths, and eat different foods, but we also come from completely different areas of the world. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish, upper-class suburb of Chicago while my husband and his family lived in a third world country in which more than 30 percent of Nepalese people survive on less than $14 per month. While my peers vacationed in beach resorts, dressed in designer clothes and attended private colleges, my husband’s family lived in a country in which half of the children under five in rural areas do not to have enough to eat, proper health care, access to education or sanitary facilities.

Why mention these statistics? In an interfaith marriage, building relationships that are peppered with differences requires immense understanding and empathy. How can you understand another person if you do not know where he or she has been? While my in-laws live amongst a challenging socio-economic background every day of their lives in Nepal, I continue to be surrounded by opportunity and good fortune. My family lives in Silicon Valley. The average workers here are among the best paid employees in the country with the average individual earning $3,240 per week. Our area boasts the most millionaires and billionaires in the entire nation.

Since my in-laws and I are living on the extreme ends of the world, we have to find a common ground and a balance when we are all together. I know it is tough for me to adapt to collective living but my in-laws also have to change, especially when it comes to what they observe as waste in our way of life.

Because my mother-in-law has directly experienced poverty around her, she takes absolutely nothing for granted. When we do not finish our food, she always saves it. This even includes tiny portions that are left over, such as something as small as a bite of fish. She makes a point to slowly and gently wrap the uneaten morsel of food and declare that it will be eaten the next day. In her soft and kind voice, she says we must not waste. Preserving food not out of hunger but out of a kind of necessity and mission, she feels a duty to eat in order to feed the world.

I am embarrassed to tell you that this behavior has bothered me at times. I like order. With all of these little parcels of leftovers in containers spread all over the refrigerator and counters, I struggle to keep what is fresh and what is not straight. Yet, slowly, when I cannot finish something and I am away from our home, my mother-in-law’s mantra will repeat and repeat in my head--we must not waste. What used to bother me suddenly becomes clear. I got it! My mother-in-law has not been trying to cause disorder; she has been trying to do her best to save the world in the way that she could.

While I grew up living amongst affluence, I could relate to her kindness in another way. In my Jewish upbringing, I was immensely influenced by the concept of Tzedakah. I remember being taught to help an elderly person cross the street, to give coins in order to help another out, and to donate canned food to those who were hungry. As someone who believes in Tzedakah, I realized that while my mother-in-law and I come from different worlds, we really are not that different from a moral standpoint. We both wished to perform tzedakah in the ways that we could in order to meaningfully contribute to the world.

I feel that my Jewishness, while different from the culture of my husband and his family, is actually what brings us closest together. My religious upbringing helped me to form my ideas about kindness, charity, and humanity. By saving every bit of food, my mother-in-law is performing a charitable act of her spirit every day. She chooses not to waste in order to give. Once I made the connection between her behavior and Tzedakah, I felt less like we were polar opposites and more like we were in the same world even if we took up different spaces in it. My kinship with my mother-in-law grew once I could see how small my inconveniences were in comparison to how big a heart she has.

I started by telling you that my marriage has brought surprises. It has. It has brought the company of my in-laws into my home and it has brought the richness of Tzedakah back into my life.

Heather Subba

Heather Subba lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. She works in the field of educational publishing.

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