Friday, March 10, 2006

Visit to the Other Side

On February 27, I wrote about how I think a lot of the perceived animosity that Orthodox people supposedly have toward the non-Orthodox is just that -- perceived, but not real. Meaning, in many cases, non-Orthodox Jews, and non-Jews, assume that Orthodox people are closed, unfriendly, condescending, etc etc and therefore don't even try to get to know any Orthodox Jews. Many of those people, when they do get to know Orthodox Jews, find that their stereotypes were all wrong, that it wasn't Orthodox Jews who had the problem, it was they who had the problem. If you meet people halfway, they will often come to you.

Now, I thought I'd qualified my post enough, but I got skewered in the comments anyway. Obviously, much depends on which Orthodox community you are talking about. I can't vouch for everyone's friendliness or the hospitality of every synagogue. I also know that many synagogues have a very cold atmosphere, and you'd have to spend a lot of time there to find the people who would be nice to you and open up to you.

I just know that the Orthodox people I hang out with are very cool to everyone, whether they are Orthodox or not, and the synagogue I attend is very friendly and welcomes everyone, no matter how you are dressed or how much or how little you know about Judaism. And no matter how much money you have. And no matter what your marital status is, or your color, or if your kids are adopted, or if you are disabled, or whatever. There are Orthodox Jews who are way cool. Yes, I myself have had to search to find a community I like, but it's there. My point being, I work hard not to wear the "veil of mystery" that I complained about in that last post, and I resent the stereotype that just because I'm Orthodox, my lifestyle is a state secret and that I'm somehow exotic and enigmatic, or backward.

Anyhow, last week I had a chance to put my idea to a test. The wife of my Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) third cousin, S., recently gave birth to their ninth child, and invited me to a kiddush (sort of an after-synagogue party with cakes, cookies, soda, and a little alcohol) at their home. Now, you have to understand some background:

  • These relatives live in an extremely cloistered Haredi neighborhood, the kind with signs everywhere that say "Ladies! Please respect the residents of our neighborhood and dress modestly. Modesty means long sleeves and skirts, skirts without slits, and married women should cover their hair. Do not lessen the sanctity of our neighborhood. 'Those who love Torah will be blessed with long life.'"
  • In this neighborhood, I stick out like a sore thumb. Sure, I was wearing long sleeves and a (very) long skirt. But . . . I can't describe this . . . my clothes just obviously are not the same style as that worn in the subculture I was visiting. Technically it was alright and wouldn't offend anyone, but stylistically it said "outsider" all over it. Then there was the fact that I was wearing sneakers, a clue-in that (driving on Shabbat being prohibited) I had to walk from way, waaaaaaay outside the neighborhood (an hour and a quarter each way, in fact -- thank God the weather was gorgeous last week!). And finally, my hair is uncovered. Since I'm clearly over the age of 19, my having my hair uncovered means I'm either single (and what business do I have being single at my age, and what else might I be doing with my time?) or I'm married but - gasp!- have not covered my hair. Either way, I'm an oddity.
  • I've been to S's house on a few occasions, so the kids know me. Apparently, they really love it when I come over. The parents are nice to me too.
  • For all that they are nice to me, I have never been in the homes of these cousins without overhearing them say something so offensive it makes me want to burst into a long lecture-- which I do not do, since a) there is no point and b) it's not polite to lecture people in front of their kids, or to lecture kids about something that contradicts directly with something their parents are trying to teach them. They are very different from me. There is no way we'd be close if it weren't for the fact that we're family. But we are family, so they are nice to me, and I'm nice to them, and we maintain a relationship. They have not tried to "mekarev" me to their ways, and I have not tried to change their minds about things (much) . . . I go, I play with the kids, we share stories (carefully avoiding certain topics) and that's it.

But would their neighbors, who have no obligation to be nice to me, even acknowledge my presence? What would they make of me? I felt like I was entering the lion's den . . . that is, I felt, going into this kiddush, what I bet a lot of not-Orthodox people feel when they are going into an Orthodox environment. Of course, I had the advantage that, being in S's home, I clearly had some connection to them - I had an "in." But still, just how weird would I be perceived to be by S's friends, who had never met me? How uncomfortable would I feel . . . and how uncomfortable would I be made to feel?

The kiddush was a very sweet little affair. S and his wife, C, had invited over several families from the neighborhood. The dining room was set up for S to receive the men, and a large table was brought into a bedroom, where the women hung out. (S and C live in a three-bedroom apartment - there's not much room for anything, so improvisation is key. And of course the men and women can't mingle, God forbid!) The baby had been born two weeks before, and the neighborhood ladies had pitched in with making cakes and cookies and kugels. S's oldest son, who is 11 1/2, also made a delicious cake (leading to a discussion by some of the women about how, even though they think it's weird for a boy to want to cook, some of them have sons who really want to try, and they don't want to squelch their childrens' creativity, so they let the boys cook sometimes). Between the hours of 10-12, people came in and out, stopping by between synagogue services and Shabbat lunch at their homes.

Since I was staying for lunch, I was introduced to every woman who came in. It was hard for them to ignore me, since the room was small and S's kids were climbing into my lap. Obviously I'd been there before. Almost everyone asked "So, how do you know C?" and I would say "S is my third cousin."

Here is my report about the reactions:

The first woman I met responded "Oh . . . I didn't know S had . . . such a relative . . . here." Wo. How am I supposed to respond to that? I just said "Yes, he does." The woman seemed to realize that she'd made a faux pas and recovered as quickly as she could, making polite conversation. After a few minutes she went home for lunch. Not a good start!

Most of the women said "oh, that's nice" and then, unless they were busy tending to their own kids, asked me more questions like where I live, what I do, etc. As happens in most polite social situations, they responded simply with "oh, how nice," and didn't register any opinion about what I'd said. If they thought that I'm strange, they kept that to themselves. I had no way to know what they thought.

Finally, I was vindicated. Close to the end of the kiddush, I'd moved to the end of the table to make room for more ladies, so I was sitting next to the wall. Across from me was a woman about my age (it turns out she's a little younger than I am) in a white snood, and her three children were running around on the porch with S's kids. Since we were both trapped near the wall, we had no choice but to make conversation.

And you know what, this woman was really, really nice. She asked me questions that went beyond superficial things -- like she was really interested in my life -- and she shared personal stories about herself and the way she sees things. I don't mean that we became best friends, just that she obviously is a person with whom it's easy to connect. When she came to understand that one of the reasons I don't visit S and C more often is that it's a little overwhelming for me to spend 25 hours with their 9 kids, she immediately invited me to stay at her house (she has more room and only three kids) any time I want. And she was so friendly, I felt genuinely excited about taking her up on the offer.

Yes, it's true I had an "in." But what I learned is if you stick around long enough, you might find the cool people. And there usually are cool people. No stereotype will "stick" 100 percent of the time.


This episode brings up another question for me.

In the Modern Orthodox world, people sometimes throw a party called a "simchat bat" in honor of a new daughter. See, when a boy is born, there is often a party called a "shalom zachor." This is in addition to the bris, when there is another party in honor of the new child. Orthodox feminists raised the question: Why should there be parties when a boy is born, but not when a girl is born? So instead of a "shalom zachor," they throw a "simchat bat" to acknowledge their happiness at having a new baby daughter.

This is all very nice and good and sweet and feminist, but what I don't understand is how is this some feminist revolution in Orthodoxy? The ultra-Orthodox, as I noted above, throw a kiddush in honor of a new baby girl. Maybe not all haredim, but definitely many. There is even a superstition that if a woman is having trouble getting married, it's because her parents didn't throw her a kiddush when she was born (depriving the new baby of having people wish her and her family "mazal tov"). Throwing a kiddush for a girl, while perhaps not universally expected, is clearly not unusual in any way.

So the haredim call it a kiddush, and the Modern Orthodox call it a simchat bat, but what's really the difference? A party is a party. Obviously people in both communities are thrilled when they have a new baby girl, and get their friends together for nosh to celebrate. How is the simchat bat a new idea? It seems to me that it's an old idea with a new, more trendy, name.

If any of you readers can explain this to me, please educate me!

Have a Shabbat shalom.

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