Saturday, March 24, 2012

Prognosis: Grim

I had a discussion last week with a former Pardes student named Jessica who works with an agency here that helps converts obtain citizenship and equal religious rights in Israel. I had been referred to her in order to gain a better understanding of what my rights are as far as being a recognized Jew, and it looks like I'm in for one hell of an uphill battle. During the conversation she told me that she "converted from Judaism, to Judaism, to Judaism." What she meant is that she grew up Jewish, but because her mother had converted to Reform Judaism, she herself was not considered Jewish by Orthodox standards. As some of you (all two of my readers) may know, Jewish custom rather arbitrarily holds that in order for a person to be "naturally" Jewish, the mother has to be Jewish--the Jewish status of the father is irrelevant. This particular young lady converted to Orthodox in the U.S. after she started to become more observant in college and thought she might like to make aliyah...and then had another Orthodox conversion in Israel. The Orthodox here, as I've been consistently bitching about in this barely read blog so far, of course only consider Orthodox conversions legitimate, but that's not all--as far as American Orthodox conversions go, only a handful of American rabbis live up to the Israeli Orthodox standards, and therefore, only a handful of American Orthodox rabbis are perceived as legitimate enough to perform conversions that will give you the status of "Jewish" with all the trimmings: the ability to officially marry a Jew in Israel, your children considered legally Jewish, and when you die, being laid to rest in a Jewish cemetery. So for Jessica, she had to go through two of the strictest brands of Jewish conversion before she obtained full recognition, and had she been raised Jewish to begin with. The  Rabbinute here are apparently some of the most paranoid people to walk the earth. It's one thing to be thorough. It's another thing to wash your underwear three times before you wear them again, just to make absolutely sure. That's what obsessive compulsive people do.

The more I think about this, research it and discuss it with people who have dealt with Orthodox conversion through the Rabbinute, the more I turn from being understanding of why they want to be careful about conversions and granting automatic right of return citizenship us, to being completely and utterly frustrated with what seems to boil down to an antiquated, out of touch, ultra-Orthodox entity with little connection to or understanding of the real issues that Jews face today regarding our identity, and turning Judaism into an elite club. It cheapens Judaism and they don't have any idea what converts go through to step into our Jewish skin, or what kind of trauma they are asking us to inflict upon ourselves by denying the validity of our conversions in favor of an insanely strict version of one, one which, ironically, many converts only adopt during the conversion process in order to jump through the hoops, and then drop as soon as it's over. After all, we too are in control of our own Jewish destiny and levels of observance. They aren't making people more frum. They are making people angry. They aren't asking people to truthfully take the mitzvot upon themselves. They are asking people to lie about who they are and what they think Judaism is.

Another issue however threatens my Right of Return status. In order to make aliyah, a convert is expected to stay in their Jewish communities where they converted for at least ten months. The idea is to keep foreign workers, refugees or otherwise insincere people from converting only to get themselves free citizenship in another country. This bureaucratic nightmare awaiting me is also understandable to an extent; Israel does not want to hand out free citizenship to everyone like it's candy anymore than the Rabbinute wants to become a conversion factory that doesn't take a potential convert's sincerity seriously enough. And in both cases, it can take ages and ages to get your case looked at as a unique one; no, I'm not a Thai sex trafficker. I sincerely believe my home is here, and my dedication to Judaism and Israel is strong and it won't be going anywhere very soon.

I've had several peers attempt to comfort me by reminding me that I can be just as Jewish in the U.S. as I can in Israel, but that's not the point. That's not enough. When you convert you join the Jewish people. Not the American Jewish people, but the Jewish people as a whole. As a nation. As Am Israel. This place is supposed to be my home with its doors always open to me, just like every Jew in the world. Saying I can be Jewish in the U.S. and that my legal status in the only Jewish country on the face of the earth is not so important, is like saying, "Sure, you can vote in the election. But we won't put vote towards the final tally, okay?" or, "Sure, you can join our baseball team! You're just not allowed to go onto the field. Is that cool with you?"

Besides, while I'm not making any definite decisions right now, I WANT to live in Israel. I DON'T WANT to go back to the States. I think of the mere two months I have left here and it makes me incredibly depressed. Like I'm counting down the days until my best friend will move away from me, and who knows when we'll meet again. Like I'm about to walk away from someone I'm madly in love with to go back to an ex that I'd rather not see.

Don't get me wrong...I'm not trying to rag on America. That's not the point. I do love my country, and there are things that I miss about it sometimes. In my heart of hearts, I'll always be an American, and I'll be keeping my citizenship anyway. But I have been looking for a place to settle for a long time, a place to call home. Yes, there's home back in Medford with my family, but being Jewish complicates it considerably. There are barely any Jews there, and hardly what I'd call a thriving Jewish community. Going back to Portland is like taking a giant step backwards. Right now, I have little tying me to the U.S.--no job, no significant other, no school, no really tight social group. So this would be the best time in my life to make aliyah. I can always decide to come back if it doesn't work out. I know it sounds insane probably to a lot of people who believe that we are teetering on the brink of war with Iran, but what can I say? Israel has issues, but I love her. I don't want to walk away from he when the going gets tough. I want to be with her.

Well, I am nothing if not persistent. I bitch and whine a lot. I'm neurotic and obnoxiously pessimistic. I expect the worse, and take every setback as evidence of my failures. I kick myself constantly, and I'm angry at myself more often than any healthy person should be. But I still don't give up if I want something badly enough. If it means something to me, then it means everything, and I don't stop until I get it. If I can survive my own negative, bullshit attitude and come as far as I have over the years and still find myself reaching my goal, then I can survive the Rabbinute. I may go home crying and whining, but I'll keep coming back until they are so annoyed, they'll have to take notice of me and say, "Okay, fine! You're Jewish, now go away!" But since I'll also be taking on the Israeli government to make sure I can obtain aliyah status in the first place, I'll have to be doubly obnoxious. It'll be like trying to slay a two headed dragon. Let's hope I don't become incinerated in the process.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Wait, which religion did I convert to, again?

To continue rambling on and on with my seemingly all-consuming thoughts regarding conversion and the "who is a Jew?" debate, I suppose it would be useful for me to reflect a bit on how I feel about my own conversion, aside from standing up on my soap box and yelling about how authentically Jewish I am. I guess you could assume that, well, it's rather clear how I feel about my conversion; authentic is authentic. While that is certainly true, I realize that there are grey areas as well. How the convert is treated or perceived can rub off on the convert, which can lead to a bout of self-consciousness about conversion, and what they mean for Jews and Judaism today. It's not that I doubt that my conversion was legitimate. The issue is that I have to ask myself what my conversion means outside of the context of myself, and within the context of the Jewish people as a whole.

Ideally, once one converts, that person should be recognized and treated as a member of the Jewish community and Am Israel. Regardless of the debate regarding what makes a conversion legitimate, this doesn't always work out the way it's supposed to. In smaller communities, everyone knows that you are a convert, and when you are introduced to someone new, especially other converts or potential ones, inevitably, the person introducing you wants you to tell your story. This happens elsewhere well, such as in Israel, where you encounter every type of Jew imaginable, and during the get-to-know-you stage of the conversation, your background tends to comes up. I just so happen to have the most non-Jewish background imaginable, so there's really no getting around talking about how I came to be Jewish, unless I want to lie about it.

If this is the only Jew you knew growing up, then you might be a convert.
And I constantly get the, "but you don't look Jewish" comment, which I find puzzling and, bizarrely, mildly offensive. On some level I want to look Jewish, even though I don't know what that means outside of stereotypes and generalizations. Once, someone told me that I do look Jewish, and my automatic response was, "thank you." This might be some sort of neurotic, leftover self-consciousness about blending in with my Jewish surroundings, because in Israel, Jews come in all different kinds of packages. How I so consistently get outed by appearance alone is baffling to me. Plus, everyone thinks that I'm Russian. Apparently, only Russians are blond.

And obviously, I out myself all of the time. Isn't that what this blog is all about? Me talking about my Jewishness?  I don't mind people knowing that I'm a convert, and I know that when people find out they are naturally going to want to know my story. That's normal. But I have moments where I feel like my conversion is showing, so to speak, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. There are those moments where I'm not specifically talking about it or referencing it, and yet, it becomes obvious through my actions.

For instance, I am just now learning how to really daven. I mean, I've prayed in shul before. I haven't really ever gotten the choreography of the praying down, nor am I terribly well oriented in the siddur. I spend a good portion of my davening time flipping through the pages, trying desperately to find where we are. It's not exactly the most inspiring spiritual experience, though I am thankful for the step-by-step instructions through most of the Art Scroll siddur.

This guy should pop up whenever you need him.
Still, it's normal even for Jews to not know how to properly daven, because plenty of Jews have never done it before, have only done it a few times, or haven't done it since Hebrew school. I'm not the only one who is learning.

But there is still some sort of self-criticism that pops into my head when other people notice that I don't know what I'm doing in a Jewish space. At lunch the other day, as I was davening Mincha, I stood in the back of the room specifically to be able to feel comfortable with stumbling through the siddur, inconspiciously. Sure enough though, someone came and stood next to me, someone with an orthodox upbringing and who is well versed in all things Jewish. I moved away from her to the next table where I had sat my bag, and in order to not make it look like I was purposely moving away from her as though she had just farted in my general vicinity, I took my water bottle from my bag and took a sip. A few minutes passed, and she came up to me with her siddur open and said, "Would you like me to show you where we are?"

It sounds ridiculous, but I felt my face heat up with embarrassment, and as I reluctantly handed her my siddur, I told her, somewhat defensively, that I was still though she had walked up to me and said, "What the hell are you doing? It's not Yom Kippur, stupid. So why are you on that page?" Instead, she gave me a friendly smile, pointed out where we were, and said, "If you have any questions, just let me know."

It incredibly silly, and even snotty of me to admit this, but I found myself feeling a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment at that moment. Why?! She simply noticed that I needed help, she offered it, and then offered more help if I wanted it. And this is how I respond to it? What the hell is my problem? That's like getting mad at someone for putting money into your bank account just because they felt like it.

Someone deposited an extra hundred into my bank account? What an asshole!
Honestly, it's a sense of self consciousness that I think is typical of a lot of converts. We want to be accepted, and we get it in our heads that in order to get accepted, we need to be super-Jews. But this doesn't just come from of insecurities of our own; sometimes, we really do get treated like idiots if we don't know something in the vast realm of Judaism: "Didn't they teach this to you during conversion? Well then what did they teach you?"

And then there's my own criticism of other converts, which I potentially have no right to voice. But let me give you an example of the times when I've raised my eyebrows at the validity of a convert's status.

Last Succot, I had a dinner with a group of friends and new acquaintances, one of whom was also an American convert. Her conversion however, was Reform. Personally, I am ambivalent when it comes to Reform Judaism. On the one hand, since we're still asking ourselves what Jewish identity means in this day and age, it's difficult for me to argue that I have the right answer, or for me to fairly claim that Reform has no merit. I have met a number of Reform converts however, who do make me question if Reform Judaism shouldn't be a little more selective or strict with how they conduct their conversions. They have a reputation according the stricter, more traditional strands of Judaism, as being the "anything goes!" form of Judaism. Reconstruction and Renewal rarely get much attention in this regard, because truthfully, I think that Conservative and Orthodox Jews see Reform as an umbrella for every other liberal movement that calls itself Jewish.

So what problem did I have with this Reform convert? Well, she seemed rather ignorant of the basics of Succot, and because there was a light breeze and she didn't dress appropriately for the weather, she was cold. She tried several times to coax us into agreeing to eat inside, and the host of the dinner almost acquiesced until the rest of us insisted that she get a blanket from inside and suck it up. It's Succot. Why have a sukkah, if you're not going to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in it as much as possible, especially for meals with your fellow Jews?

She proceeded to say HaMotzi for us, but attempted to get the rest of us to do the "challah chain," which is basically when the person reciting the blessing lays a hand on the challah, and everyone around the table links together by holding hands. This is the weirdest, perhaps most halackhically incorrect way to say HaMotzi, and as far as where it came from, the only thing that I can imagine inspired it, was to be a big "fuck you" to the Jews who think that it's important to preserve at least some halakhic practices. The Israelis at the table were baffled, and after someone nudged her to pick the challah up, she did so, and held it awkwardly before reciting the blessing. Afterwards, she fumbled around before someone told her (breaking the silence after the hand washing) to cut the bread into enough pieces for everyone, salt it, take a bite of a piece, and pass the rest around the table. That's not such a big deal, since people have different traditions, and we often learn these things by observing others. The first time I said HaMotzi, I mimicked the three year old that I learned it from, after living with a Jewish family for more than a year. Needless to say, I did it incorrectly, and it was a relief that the only people who witnessed my toddler version of reciting brachot were two understanding, non-judgmental friends (one of whom was a member of my beit din). The issue I have with it (besides feeling that it's a weird hippy moment where we're all supposed to link hands and be spiritual together...or something), is that it was the first of many indications that she was not very oriented in the Jewish world at all.

She explained the challah chain to the confused dinner table attendees, and someone asked what they do if there is a disproportionate number of males and females at the table. What are the people who are shomer negiah supposed to do? Needless to say, she had no idea what this concept was, and laughed hysterically when we told her that the Orthodox, and some Modern Orthodox, don't touch the opposite sex--only after marriage do a man and woman touch each other. When we assured her that we were quite serious, she responded with, "So they're virgins when they get married? They've never even kissed?!"

Now, personally I find the concept of shomer negiah ridiculously extreme, and borderline offensive. While it's true that the idea is to discourage sexual temptation before marriage, there's more to it than that. There's also the "family purity" laws, where a woman who is on her period is in niddah, and nobody, husband included, is supposed to touch her at that time. Again, extreme and quite archaic--I think it comes from a time when people were baffled as to why women would inexplicably bleed from, you know, there, and felt that it warranted some sort of behavioral response and conduct. These days, we know what menstruating is, and since only us ladies get the pleasure of this messy, annoying and often painful business, we get treated, well, differently from men. When a man had an inexplicable seminal emission, he too was supposed to go to the mikvah and "purify" himself, just like menstruating women were expected to visit the mikvah after their period had ended (plus seven days). Again, these days, we understand the body and its functions, and why such things happen (don't even get me started on how much I roll my eyes at the "destruction of seed" issue). But I'm sure that also these days, men aren't running to the mikvah every time they have a hot dream about touching the women that they are forbidden to touch. And in any case, being shomer negiah even extends to refraining from intentionally touching an elderly member of the opposite sex, even though she's clearly past menopause, and not exactly sexually enticing (you know...unless you're into that kind of thing). I know a Haredi rabbi who became uncomfortable when the grandma of a baby boy at a Brit Millah hugged him after he performed the circumcision. Really? Even happy grandmas, and their totally innocent hugs at their grandson's Brit Millah are off limits?

I know I sound cynical and like I'm ragging on the Orthodox (I kind of am), but I think that these are real issues that are worthwhile for us, as Jews, to discuss. I also think that, while I certainly don't know everything that I should, we all should try to educate ourselves about our Judaism before, during, and after conversion. For a convert to not know even some of the most basic things about what they converted to, is concerning, especially since the common response I hear from Reform converts when asked why they decided to convert, is that they find Judaism beautiful and that it really speaks to them on a spiritual level. That's great and all, and I'm being sincere when I say that, but there is a lot to Judaism. There's a lot of stuff to it that I find not so beautiful (nidah and shomer negiah being just two examples), but I knew about these things before I signed on, and I'm aware that, despite my distaste for some of these practices, they are still important for many Jews to observe, and are a part of this extremely complicated thing called Judaism. I think it's problematic to declare yourself Jewish when there are some basic, overview things that you don't know about. This particular lady also didn't understand why we were singing after the meal...did she really not know about the after meal blessings?

Another Reform convert who I know never went into the mikvah when she converted, and her female rabbi assured her that she didn't need to do so in order to convert. That just screams, "Yeah Judaism is just like, whatever you want it to be, and stuff," if you ask me. Are there no standards? No parameters at all? That is what freaks the Orthodox out the most, I think; Jews and Judaism by definition will lose so much of its character and distinctiveness if these types of conversions are consistently accepted, that it will, at some point cease to be Judaism altogether. I can't say I don't blame them for their concerns, or that I totally disagree with them, either.

I really don't mean disrespect towards Reform Judaism. I am just puzzled by and worried about a movement that seems to consistently convert people without giving them the education that they should have about what it is that they are choosing, and the lack of importance and significance they can place on Jewish traditions. One of the things I find so appealing about Judaism, is its long history of study, knowledge, and truth seeking. When Judaism stops doing that, or simply says, "Yeah, I suppose that's good enough," it really does become something else. I don't have a Unitarian perspective when it comes to religion. I don't think that everything in the world is subjective and can be completely redefined so as to become something else. One shouldn't look at a Rothko and say, "Oh, anybody could do that! It doesn't mean anything." Instead, go and check out a book about Rothko and find out why he paints the way that he does. Don't read a challenging piece of poetry and say, "It means whatever I want it to mean." No. It really doesn't. You just have to work to find the deeper meaning in it, even if you don't get a concrete, factual answer. It certainly does take some work, but the top layer of something is usually the least interesting, and least meaningful. Sometimes your interpretations are shallow and require some rethinking.

For instance, you should be able to recognize what is wrong with this picture.
So, perhaps being a bit hypercritical of the holes in my Jewish knowledge is not such a bad thing; it fits my already neurotic personality, a Jewish stereotype if there ever was one. But I also think it's unhealthy to compare yourself to people who were born as Jews and have more knowledge than you do, as though no matter what you do, you'll never be as Jewish as them. It's not a competition, and at some point you have to ask yourself the more personal question of "how do I view my Judaism?" not, "is my Judaism authentic?" That too requires some education, mostly about yourself and your relationship to God, because ultimately, those of us who converted or choose to be observant Jews do it for a reason. The tough questions apply to us on a personal level, too. It's a good thing to re-evalutate yourself once in a while.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I dream in Jewish

I have a long history of insomnia, nightmares, sleep paralysis, and according to my sister who I used to share a room with, a bizarre tendency to sit up in bed and stare creepily at nothing while exclaiming, "What's that!" before casually lying back down, and drifting into unconsciousness again. All in all, I have an overly anxious brain, and the wheels in there have not stopped turning since I was old enough to worry, which was fairly young, when I thought Jesus was watching me from behind the bedroom door closet that wouldn't quite close all the way. I was deathly afraid of the dark until I was 10, and wouldn't sleep facing away from the wall, for fear of possibly seeing something scary in my room. Needless to say, I'm an anxious person, and it has affected my sleep immensely over the years.

So, it's not too surprising that I'd have nightmares concerning a recent "who is a Jew?" debate that my attention was called to during a lecture at Pardes last week. Here's the deal: I have a Conservative conversion, which makes me eligible for aliyah, but not eligible to get married to a Jew in Israel (though if I married outside of the country, and then hopped back over, the marriage would be recognized), my hypothetical kids would not be considered Jewish, and I wouldn't have a grave plot in a Jewish cemetery. I could sidestep these issues by having a second, Orthodox conversion through the rabbinute here in Israel, but that calls all kinds of deeply personal issues regarding my current status as a Jew into question. Personally, I know I am Jewish, and I don't care what the Orthodox have to say about that. My conversion was legitimate, I trust the judgement of my beit din, and I have no interest in turning frum by the standards of some other Jewish entity that arrogantly claims itself to be the only legitimate form of Judaism. So what should I do?

I'm struggling with this, and it's been affecting me a lot more than I consciously realized until recently. I'm having the strangest dreams over it.

The other night, I had a dream that I was being forced to have Shabbat dinner with a round table of people who I either don't care for, or would rather leave in my past. They were asking me all kinds of personal questions about my life as though they were my beit din, and they had some sort of power to revoke my Jewishness based on how I would answer their questions. I became more and more frightened that they would do this to me, but I still felt compelled to answer the questions honestly, even when I knew that the answer would be a point against me. I started sniveling like a pathetic child, and finally yelled (in dramatic soap opera style), "Judaism is all I have! It's all I have left!" like a desperate plea for them to stop putting me beneath their microscope, to stop looking for chinks in my armor. I don't remember how the dream concluded, but I woke up too early, and in a foul mood.

Then last night I had a real nightmare. I was standing in this long line of Jews wearing striped prison uniforms, like the ones the concentration camp inmates would wear. There was this barely repressed terror in the air, and we were surrounded by these huge walls, and the line was moving in a painfully slow procession towards something. As I got closer, I realized that we were lining up at a huge pit of lava and fire, and were taking turns stepping into it, to our certain and agonizing deaths. Some people however, were being chosen by some unseen force to avoid the lava pit, and leave the enclosed area. It wasn't clear why the ones being chosen to live were being chosen. And as the people got closer to the pit, the panic grew and grew, and some of the people, overcome with the inability to stand the anxiety of what would happen when it was their turn, committed suicide, but jumping into the pit, screaming the whole time. Other people were beside themselves and didn't know what to do, paralyzed into inaction, and others walked slowly and obediently into the pit, as though if the had faith, perhaps God would split the lava into two fiery walls, like He split the Red Sea for Moses and the freed Hebrews as they escaped the bondage of slavery in Egypt, and on the other side of the pit would be some sort of way out. But God didn't split the lava pit like He split the Red Sea. People just walked into it like mindless zombies, as though they were giving up and only going through the motions of faith. I was one of the people who was beside themselves and unsure of what to do. I was shaking and pacing while a sense of very real and very intense dread was controlling me. Needless to say, I woke up without feeling rested, my heart pounding, my hair wet at the roots with sweat.

So here we have two dreams: one where I am emphatically begging to be recognized as a Jew while confessing all of my flaws, mistakes and sins to people who don't like me or want to have anything to do with me, and will likely take my Jewishness from me, and a second one where I am a Jew...and I'm facing the terror of uncertainty, the certainty of my mortality, confusion over who gets to avoid agonizing death and why, and the validity of religious faith in the face of such horror. This second dream and its elaborateness, vivid detail, and Holocaust imagery really shocked me. I have had very vivid and grotesque images in my dreams before, some of which would have probably made Aleister Crowley cry, and panic and dread have woken me up many, many nights. But this one is really going to stick with me and haunt me for some time.

In Chumash class, I have been studying Exodus while all of these questions and issues revolving around my conversion are floating around in my mind. I am aware that some view the Holocaust as analogous to enslavement in Egypt, and even through such utter hell, the Jewish people still survived as a people--a deeply traumatized people, but a people. And somehow, I fit into this, and I want to fit into this, because at my core, it is who I am. I didn't have to take on Judaism, complete with it's long (and continuing) history of persecution, antisemitism, victimhood, suffering, strife, and uncertainty, but you know what? I did.

I want to make this distinction clear. I view my being a Jew as not a choice, but something that was already in me all along, waiting to be realized and discovered. I view the term "Jew by choice" as I would view someone identifying as "gay by choice." And as gay people will tell you, they are who they are because that's the way they are wired, not because they felt like it might be interesting to try on this queer identity. Still, you do have a choice in the manner, and the choice is between these two things: you can embrace who you are and declare it to the world knowing full well that there are a lot of people out there who hate you, who see you as inferior, who want to deny you your humanity and the rights that come with that humanity, who misunderstand you, who want to hurt you, and even kill you. Or, you can choose to deny who you are, refuse to openly be what you are, and remain half of a person while you struggle with pushing your true self away. That's where your choices lie.

I didn't have to convert and loudly announce to the world that I am a Jew. But I didn't want to be half of a person. In some ways, it would have been easier, at least on the surface, to not take on the yoke of responsibility that comes with joining the Jewish people. Maybe it would be easier to stay in the closet. But is easier better? And what happens when you dig down a little deeper, and you find this entire other facet of your being that would make you whole if you want to let it. Would you just ignore it?

I live in a post-Holocaust world, and I left the comfort of my gentile American life to declare myself a Jew, and then I ran off to the Middle East, to a tiny, widely hated country that even in times of peace, is in what appears to be permanent survival mode. Either I'm crazy, or I'm 100% on board with embracing my Jewishness and joining the Jewish people, complete with all of their afflictions. I could very well be both.

So, who is a Jew? I get the complexities surrounding the issue, and I know that the current tension and honest pain that I'm feeling over the fact that my legitimacy would be called into question isn't because the Orthodox are just plain mean. The real debate is "what does it mean to be Jewish in our modern world?" Is halakah still relevant? Can halakah change? Is there something else that defines us as Jews? If so, what is it? And what do we do with all of these people that want to join us? How will they affect us? What will it mean for the modern state of Israel? These questions have never been so relevant and pressing in all of Jewish history. Today, Judaism is seeing an unprecedented number of people wanting to convert, wanting to embrace their Jewishness and join Am Israel. It's not surprising that we're still struggling in the search for answers to these questions. This is precisely why the convert's struggle with identity is precisely a reflection of the struggle of Judaism today to define itself. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and all the grey areas in between these Jewish movements don't agree on that definition. Israel as a state is also still defining itself. And in my own small, insignificant little life, I am struggling to define myself as well. All I do know is that I am Jewish, whatever that may mean. How I choose to proceed from here is my choice to make, though my ambivalence regarding those choices is likely to follow me for some time to come.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Yes, these are my pants.

There are many things about Jerusalem that I love, but one of my favorite things is how thoroughly enjoyable it is to people watch here. A full day of people watching in Jerusalem can easily consist of tourists from every corner of the world, monks, priests of various Christian denominations, Muslims, hip kids with weird haircuts (Why do so many Arab teenage boys shave the sides of their head until their hair comes to a point at the back of the neck? Why, I ask you?), fashionable Orthodox Jewish women pushing babies in strollers and somehow making it look sleek and stylish, hordes of adorable kids with tiny peyas running around in the streets, black hats, fur hats even in July, and IDF soldiers casually standing in line for a coffee with their guns slung over their shoulder. There are plenty of unassuming, everyday folks around town completing this eclectic mix of course, but Jerusalem is rarely dominated by the mundane things. The day to day life here, and what it looks like, is anything but typical in the rest of this world. But people watching is why I love visiting all of the different neighborhoods, each one distinct and with its own character. Admittedly, I am completely fascinated by the Haredi ones. Why? Well,I suppose you could chalk it up to my almost completely Jewless upbringing which makes Haredi culture seem so new and intriguing (mind you, not necessarily appealing) to me. This doesn't mean that I gawk at them like some clueless tourist, and in any case, you become used to the sight of them everywhere after about a week of living here. I just find places such Meah Shearim to be rather singular, and walking through the streets can be an experience in and of itself. That being said, I am also aware that I am not Haredi, will likely never be, and the Haredi view of the world is rather different from my own. If I walk onto their turf, I try to be respectful. I don't mind wearing a skirt and making sure that my boobs aren't on display. It's not a hard thing to do, considering my normal manner of dress, anyway. There have been times however, when I've found myself in the awkward situation of looking like the clueless tourist (and let's be honest; in my case, a clueless shiksa, though I supposedly shed my shiksa skin in the mikvah last June), wandering around what is clearly a religious neighborhood in my jeans and sandals. I never mean to do it--it just happens, and somehow, it happened twice this week.

Now, I'm well aware of the fact that the Haredim don't own the streets, and outside of Meah Shearim, it's unlikely that you'll get accosted in many of the religious neighborhoods for being dressed "immodestly" (I'm sure, however, that this is true only by degrees; wearing jeans as a woman is probably an entirely different ball-game from strutting through Geulah in a halter top and booty shorts).  

For instance, this is only acceptable in Tel Aviv, ladies
But I have a strong conservative streak in me that likes to respect the traditions and practices of others when I'm in their "home," so to speak. I don't even like approaching the Kotel in pants, because there appears to be a quiet, little frum voice that occasionally pops into my head, that tells me the "proper" thing to do. Plus, when it comes to wandering around their neighborhoods, I would rather blend in anyway; it allows me to feel like I can maneuver through the streets and freely explore the place more comfortably, because despite my goth/wanna-be punk phase in high school, I don't really like to stand out so much that I get looks from those around me that make me feel like I must be from another planet. Being white in China made me feel that way, and wearing pants and a t-shirt in a religious neighborhood here in Jerusalem also makes me feel that way. They're uncomfortable, I'm unless I'm just passing through, it's better, I think, to just blend in and enjoy the experience of being out of your element for a bit.

So, as I was observing the Fast of Esther (there's that little frum voice again, telling me that even minor fasts are important to observe...I wonder why that little frum voice doesn't wake me up on Shababt mornings and tells me to be a good Jew and go to shul?), I decided to torture myself further by shopping for food at the shuk, since my cupboards were bare, and I needed to prepare for co-hosting a seudah. So I went in the evening, armed with a shopping list ("no, no grumbling seems like a good idea to buy a pound of rugelach now, but later on, we will be glad that we didn't, and that we stuck to our list..."), a bottle of water (the most crucial thing--the hardest part of fasting is not drinking water, doubly so in Middle East), and two cookies given to me earlier in the day as an early mishloach manot. The plan was that I would be done with my shopping  and on the bus by the time the fast was ending, and I'd drink my water and eat my cookies on the bus to pace myself before getting home and devouring a decent meal with fresh shuk produce and whatnot. This was better than my original plan from earlier in the day, which was to eat at a kosher McDonald's just for novelty's sake (I feel oddly obligated to eat there just once, just because I know when I go back to the States, I'll regret not saying, "You know what? I've eaten at a kosher McDonald's...isn't that fascinating?"), but I thought better of it in the end; apparently, stuffing a Big Mac and a bunch of greasy fries into your face after a fast can be a regrettable experience.

All was going according to plan, until I decided to walk home a different way than I usually do when visiting the shuk. This is an incredibly, profoundly stupid thing for me to do, and I should know better, because I have absolutely no sense of direction, whatsoever. I am the embodiment of the directionless female stereotype. I've gotten turned around in hallways before where there were only two directions for me to take. I think it might be an uncategorized disorder, or a mild form of retardation. My blonde hair only enhances the unfortunate stereotype too, I'm afraid.

Me: Okay, I know Jerusalem is around here somewhere.
Taking new routes and getting a little lost for a bit is fine when one is not starving, thirsty, and tired from a long day of fasting, attending Mishnah class, a women and mitzvot class, and shopping at the crazy Jerusalem shuk right before Purim for an upcoming seudah (wow...when did I get so frum?). Plus, I didn't have my ridiculous, yet handy shuk bag on wheels with me. Instead, I was carrying two large bags, filled with produce and food which requires cooking (ideally) before being consumed, accessories for my Purim costume, and of course, in the spirit of Purim, I had also purchased three bottles of wine (they were having a really good sale at the wine, I'm a wino, so I couldn't pass it up). Still, I strolled casually off into the wrong direction, bogged down with the weight of my purchases, completely unaware of where I was, which happened to be the very religious neighborhood of Mekor Baruch. 

I started to get the feeling that I wasn't in Kansas anymore, when every single person who passed me for the first few minutes of my stroll was wearing a black hat and suit, peyot bouncing along the sides of their heads as the hurried off to presumably break the fast at shul. And there were many shuls. I then realized that I was wearing pants, and because I was sweating what precious moisture I still had in me from the sheer exertion of carrying so much, my jacket was off and tucked into a bag, leaving my arms as naked as the day I was born. 

Okay, I thought. No biggie. Perhaps I'll get some disapproving looks, but really, in my experience, outside of the overly publicized, insane people who will spit at you and call you a slut, even if you are dressed rather modestly (I'm looking at you, Beit HaShemesh), the Haredim, in most places, don't pay you any mind if you're not bothering them. Jerusalem is not Harediland. They are used to seeing women in pants around most of the city, and the ones who are most offended by it tend to stay where they don't have to see it. Still, it's odd to wander around in their neighborhoods, which are noticeably void of the modernity of cars, at dusk, just as they are all out walking around, about to break this minor fast that they surely are observing, and here you are; a woman in pants, bogged down with shopping bags, bright pink shirt shining like a beacon of secularism, in sea of modest black. 

Still, I became aware of the time, and despite being helplessly lost at this point (I'd start making like Hansel and Gretel and leave a trail of bread crumbs to find my way back in this city, if I wasn't certain that all of the alley cats that plague Jerusalem would swarm in and gobble them all up the second they hit the ground), I had to stop, rest, hydrate, and eat my precious, precious cookies that I had brought with me. It was either that or bite into a raw onion from the shuk, along with uncooked noodles, potatoes and perhaps the actually viable option of the bell pepper. Haredim continued to stroll by me, mostly not looking at me, though a few of the kids would give me a curious look, or a sidelong glance would be cast my way by an adult. I just continued to suck at my water bottle like a furiously irritated baby, and inhale the cookies. Then it was back to figuring out how the hell to get out of this unfamiliar neighborhood.

I finally found a highway with bus stops, so I assumed that at least these would orient me, or a kind bus driver would take pity on me and direct me to where to go. However, these buses were different from the normal Egged buses that go all over town, and consisted of unfamiliar bus numbers such as 406 and 225...Haredi buses schlepping those who live just outside of Jerusalem in and out of the center of town. Sighing, I trudged on, too embarrassed and uncomfortable to ask for directions (there's something really undignified about asking for directions after living here for nine months, and it totally has to do with my pride and wanting to separate myself from the many, many tourists that invade Jerusalem all year. Plus, I'm still not very confident with my Hebrew, and English speaking Haredim are not as common as non-Haredi Jews who speak English, and...well, I was dressed so "immodestly," anyway). My stomach was growling furiously at me at this point, demanding that I stuff that raw bell pepper and onion into my face before I die.

Finally...finally, I heard the familiar "ding, ding!" of the Jerusalem light rail, the route of which I am actually familiar with, it being quite a straightforward shot (and yes, I did once take the wrong train going in the opposite direction of my desired destination). That was how I got out of Mekor Baruch, surprisingly without passing out from exhaustion and hunger.

The second time I found myself in pants (and sandals, as well) in a religious neighborhood, was during a lovely Shabbat afternoon stroll, just one day after Purim, and two days after getting lost the first time. I was with a few friends, two guys and a girl, and the guys do look rather Orthodox (typically they wear white dress shirts, black slacks, a kippah, and a beard), and the other girl amongst us was dressed in a long skirt and a modest, sleeved shirt. After enjoying a walk around Nachlaot, (perhaps my favorite Jerusalem neighborhood, and desired future home), we decided to venture into the more religious neighborhoods, such as the ultra-Orthodox Zichron Moshe...or rather, that's where we ended up, which sparked the curiosity of one amongst us who doesn't spend much time in Haredi areas. And since this was on Shabbat, and the weather was particularly nice, EVERYONE was out in the streets, soaking up the sun, strolling around, the kids playing in the absolutely carless streets. To make matters worse, because we were drinking whiskey before leaving our Shabbat lunch, we decided it would be a good idea to take advantage of Israel's laws regarding alcohol, which in no way forbids walking around in public with open containers of booze. This public drinking was a bit more discreet and not really looked down upon when my frum-looking friends were partaking in the libations, but for me, a female wearing pants with a shirt sporting a lower than average neckline, and sandals on my nearly naked feet, while drinking from a double shot glass full of whiskey? While speaking American English and wearing lipstick? That's not so discreet. Not too surprisingly, I got more than a few looks this time, of the not so friendly kind, especially from the women. I can only imagine what they thought of me.

  Probably something like this
Thankfully, we didn't make it to Meah Shearim (which was the desired destination, it was decided, somewhere in the middle of our walk, because one of us had never been there), but, well hey, look at the time! Time to go back to the apartment and do Havdalah. Personally, I don't want to be spat upon or have rocks thrown at me, or even just glared at by hostile Haredim. 

Sometimes I surprise myself when I get into these quite avoidable situations, even after being here for nine months. It really reminds me that I am in fact in a foreign land, behaving like the stranger that you have to be nice to, even though she's really getting under your skin and you kind of disapprove of her ways. But I like to think that it's only a clear sign that I feel at home here. And while I'm making myself comfortable, wandering around Haredi neighborhoods in my pants while drinking whiskey, I suppose that's really a good thing. I like thinking of Jerusalem as home. Not everyone is going to be comfortable walking in on you splayed out in the recliner, wearing only your underwear, drinking a beer and watching the game, so to speak. But hey, it's my home too.

And for the record, I don't care what the Haredim say; not all pants are men's pants because pants are masculine by default. Ask any man if he'd wear our flared, low-rise, stretch denim jeans with flowers embroidered on the butt, and he'll tell you the same. Oh well. That's Jerusalem for you. I cherish the moments when I feel that we can agree to disagree around here, and I'm often reminded that, despite what the media would have you think, a woman wearing pants does not need to expect to be spat upon, or find rocks being thrown her way in every neighborhood where the Orthodox make their homes. Even if they don't approve of my attire, typically, when I try to be friendly and I say to them, "shabbat shalom," more likely than not, I'll get a mumbled, "shabbat shalom" in return.

 By the way, I really can frum it up. It's creepy.

About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

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Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.