Note: I absolutely loved my host family, and I loved my experience with them. This story is about one of the more awkward aspects of having girls live with a family for a year. But it’s not representative of my entire experience there.
Families in Cleveland who host Yavne seminary girls each have their own way of dealing with their boarders. Some, especially families with only little kids, integrate the girls into the family almost entirely. Some, especially those with no kids living at home, leave the girls to their own devices and act as I imagine the boarding-house matrons of the early twentieth century did.
The family I stayed with had four children still at home: a girl two years older than us, a tenth-grade girl, a thirteen-year-old boy, and a nine-year-old boy. We were friendly with the two girls, and they hung out in the basement or attic with us often. They were honorary seminary girls when they felt like it.
But it was a one-way integration. We were separate from the family. We ate dinner in the kitchen, where the two girls often joined us, while the parents and boys ate in the dining room. It wasn’t appropriate, after all, for two boys both over the age of yichud to interact too much with the girls…
There were some things that were off-limits to us. The living room and dining room were out of bounds during the week, and we entered only on shabbos, when we sat on the couch with the girls for kabbalas shabbos and at the dining room table for the seudah. The laundry room, which we got to by going through the living room, was available to us at specific times, whenever our house mother wasn’t using it, but since we did have to cross the living room, we had to ask before venturing in to make sure we weren’t interrupting private family time.
The six of us who boarded in that home (four in the basement and two in the attic) were used to different levels of familiarity with both family and strangers. For me, having parts of the house off-limits came naturally. Not that I was forbidden from any rooms in my parents’ home, but I was very used to boundaries being enforced. (To this day, I’m shocked and hesitant to enter when friends allow me into their bedrooms, especially when it’s a bedroom they share with their partner. But that’s a whole ‘nother story, replete with warped ideas about parents and couples and sex and what privacy means.) I was also used to some conversation being off-limits with certain people, and I knew when to shut up even when a conversation was happening right next to me.
For two of my housemates, the idea of these boundaries was foreign. They were used to caring about everyone, and everyone caring about them, in a fluid, open way that emphasized communication rather than boundaries.
After two debacles where family members got very upset at us for invading their space both physically and emotionally, and relationships became excruciatingly strained for a week or so, the six of us decided on a strategy:
We had our own phone line in the basement, with its own phone number. We were boarders in other people’s home. It was the “boarders’ line.” And we were having trouble with borders and boundaries. So, naturally, our code word became “borderline.” Any time one of us thought someone was about to cross boundaries or had said something the family would not be comfortable with, we would say “the borderline is ringing.”
It actually worked…