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Orthodoxapalooza

 

A few weeks ago, when my best friend from high school was visiting from Israel, we met up on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst. If you are not an aficionado of the habits of Orthodox Jews on Long Island you may not recognize the name of the place, but Central Avenue is a haven for Orthodox Jews looking for kosher food, Judaica products, modest clothes and wigs, and the general companionship of similarly dressed people.  I was one of three women wearing pants, along the whole street, and even the little girls wore skirts over their leggings (and this was not a cold day).

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“That seems like an awful lot of clothes, Mommy.”

I had to do a practice drive ahead of time, even though I’ve lived on Long Island my whole life, because I’d never driven to Central Avenue before. Even though I stayed in the car for that first trip, it felt a little bit like time travel, being surrounded by the sort of people I remembered from my adolescence. Even my brother’s Modern Orthodox neighborhood doesn’t quite jangle the same bells, if only because the skirts the women wear are shorter, and the men don’t let their payes (side-curls) grow long enough to dangle.

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“Do I have those payless things?”

We met there because my friend had fond memories of Central Avenue from an adolescence filled with longing to go there, both to window shop and to mingle. She doesn’t have the same anxieties about not looking religious enough that I do, but she told me that people dress completely differently in her neighborhood in Israel, even though they’re just as religious as in Cedarhurst. I assumed she meant that they wear different kinds of clothes there because it’s so much hotter, but she said that even though you don’t need to dress a certain way in Israel in order to look sufficiently Jewish, there are still different styles of dressing for almost every religious neighborhood, so they can make it clear that they are each, even if only slightly, different kinds of Jews.

027

“We can’t BOTH be dogs. That’s just silly.”

Back in Cedarhurst, I noticed that the Jewish-friendly stores on Central Avenue are mostly high end, and I was afraid to go into one of the cafes, not because I question their level of kashrut (I don’t keep kosher), but because the prices were way over my head. The wigs in the wig shop weren’t cheap synthetics, but natural fibers and beautifully cut and colored, and the clothes were very well made, if mind-bogglingly similar. And almost every car was an SUV, even for the young marrieds with only one or two kids (so far). It used to be that very religious Jewish communities were sort of down at heel, because raising eight kids on a social worker’s or teacher’s salary, while the husband studies all day, doesn’t lend itself to wealth. But Modern Orthodoxy (which encourages Orthodox Jews to embrace living in the larger society instead of choosing isolation), has changed the lifestyles of many religious Jews, encouraging young men (and women!) to go into business or become doctors and lawyers, instead of studying all day.

But there are still a million rules to remember when you walk back into the Orthodox world, around clothes and food and haircuts and handwashing and on and on. It goes beyond the 613 Mitzvot the rabbis deduced from the Torah, because at some point orthodox rabbis decided that local customs should gain the power of Jewish law, which means that if the community you come from has the custom of waiting six hours to eat milk again after a meat meal, then that’s what you have to do, even though the length of time is not specified anywhere in the bible. And in my brother’s neighborhood if you only have one dishwasher, instead of one for milk dishes and one for meat dishes, then you are never having guests for dinner. There are strictures upon strictures, drawing lines between every two Jews, so that you are inevitably more religious than one neighbor and less religious than another and you are going to hear about it.

004

“I’m sorry, Mommy, but you’re just not religious enough for me.”

My friend, orthodox as she is, isn’t as kosher as the rest of her family, and doesn’t have quite enough children to compete with her younger siblings, but she has adapted to it. She respects their choices and makes sure not to serve them a chicken certified kosher by the slightly less strict rabbi in her neighborhood, but instead by the slightly stricter rabbi in their neighborhood, when they come over for dinner. She has always been tolerant of their differences, but able to hold on to her own views at the same time, which has a lot to do with why we were friends in high school, when I was nowhere near as religious as my classmates and, no one would eat at my house (only one dishwasher).

Like my friend, I work hard to be accepting of how other people live their lives, and I try to look for reasons to be tolerant and understanding, but religious orthodoxy pushes my buttons. It reminds me of feeling like an outsider as a kid, and feeling like I was an essentially bad person for the food I ate and the clothes I wore. I think I jump to conclusions much faster about a woman wearing a wig, or a man with a black hat or payes, than I do with people who are different from me in other ways. I feel automatically more self-conscious and less acceptable when I walk into a religious Jewish neighborhood, wearing my usual jeans and a sweater, whereas most other places I tend to feel invisible, in a good way.

I’ve found that this is a trigger for a lot of liberal or progressive or secular Jews, because it taps into a feeling that we are not good enough, not Jewish enough. And the fact is, being Jewish is an essential part of our identities, just in a different way than for the Orthodox. When one of my nephews, years ago, looked me up and down (in my jeans and short sleeves and sneakers) and asked me if I was Jewish, I had to take a deep breath not to hiss and curse at him. He didn’t mean anything by it (he was and is a very sweet boy), he was just raised in a world where Jews look a certain way, and act a certain way, and he didn’t know what to make of me. But even knowing that it was an innocent comment, I still felt the hurt, just as I do when I hear about the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel deciding that liberal Jews aren’t really Jews and their weddings and conversions are not kosher.

There are a lot of things about Orthodox Judaism that I love, though, most especially the way they preserve tradition and create worlds that are infused with Jewishness, so that you don’t have to work very hard to feel Jewish and to feel proud of being Jewish. Their children are educated in the history and traditions of the Jewish people, and feel connected to their community and heritage. But in the process, they also condemn a lot of other Jews to being outsiders, and to being treated as less than and in need of improvement. The endless rifts between progressive and Orthodox Jews, in Israel and in the United States, are painful and intransigent. We, as human beings, tend to be much better at identifying our differences than our similarities.

003

“It’s true. Human’s are terrible.”

But I went to Central Avenue in Cedarhurst anyway, and I chose to walk down the street, as I am, and no one gave me the evil eye, or pulled me aside to proselytize me into orthodoxy, the way I was afraid they might. Everyone went on with their lives, and, at the very least, kept their hurtful opinions to themselves. And I got to see my good friend for a few hours, with only the effort of a drive across the Island instead of a long plane ride across the world.

That’s a pretty good place to start.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

72 responses »

  1. ramblingsofaperforatedmind

    As a non Jewish person, I had no idea there were so many rules…..

    Reply
  2. I love reading your blog. I live in New Mexico, you live in New York, I’m in my sixties, you are much younger, I am a Christian, you are a Jew. But despite all our differences, I see the beauty in your heart and soul that comes through so clearly in your writing, and I love it.

    Reply
  3. A year ago, this would have been much harder for me to understand. But after working a year in even a Conservative synagogue with a strictly kosher rabbi (well, at least kosher concerning food), your post makes sense. We mostly have conservative and reformed Jews in our area.

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  4. How very interesting! I had no idea it was so complicated.

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  5. As a secular half-Jewish atheist, I find it all baffling, just another version of sharia law or fundamentalism, and a way to divide people. I’m not referring to traditions and the spiritual side, but the legions of rules and rituals and exclusivities of so many religions.

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  6. I am amazed at your perceptive, incisive understanding of culture and human nature. What a gift you have, and are.

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  7. Great to know you had a smooth visit to Central Avenue. My dad died when I was 18 and my mother remarried nine years later to Si, a wonderful Jewish man. His sister, Rose, was so angry that Si hadn’t married a Jew that she refused to get to know my mother for several years. My mother could win over almost anyone and in the end she and Rose became best friends. After mom died, Rose often said how much she regretted not accepting her from the beginning. It’s all about being accepting of others.

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  8. Rachel,
    This was a particularly interesting post for me because I spent a fair amount of time on Central Ave the past few years. It’s a nice, but expensive place to visit. I stayed with a friend for a few weeks last summer. As you mentioned, I think you’d have earn a professional’s salary to live there, to shop, or eat out. It’s not the most religious area I visited, but they maintain a higher standard of living, than the more religious neighborhoods.

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    • I think the most religious neighborhoods, in the US and in Israel, still tend to advocate for men studying all day whenever possible and for isolation from the rest of society in general, but it’s just not a sustainable plan for most people.

      Reply
  9. Hi Rachel,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and perspectives! As someone who blogs from a progressive Jewish perspective, I find your insights help to inform and teach me as a Jewish person and blogger. I belong to a Reform congregation, and am also an avid student of the Torah and immerse myself in texts (also, while working in the mental health field as a director full time!). I love your descriptions of the Orthodox world, and your navigation through your experiences. We are truly all Jews, and share so much, I wish we could all see what you do more often.

    Thank you again for sharing. It is truly appreciated!

    -Joshua

    Reply
    • Thank you! When I finally found a synagogue I liked as an adult (Reconstructionist), I was surprised to find out how little most liberal Jews knew about the orthodox. Up until then I assumed that the animosity of the orthodox for the liberal went unrequited. Nope. I feel like every time I visit a different Jewish community I have to learn a whole new set of assumptions and prejudices. It’s fascinating, and confusing, and then fascinating all over again!

      Reply
  10. “Can’t both be dogs” – still laughing. On a more serious note, please can you explain the wigs to me? I’m sure I could Google it, but I note you enjoy writing informatively about being Jewish, and I’d rather have it explained by a real human. I’ve encountered it in several books I’ve read I enjoy many Jewish writers – I think I have read all of Singer, I love Potok, and as a teenager I devoured Uris, for example. Anyway, I’ve wondered about the wigs but never thought to ask about them until now. Hope that’s ok.

    Reply
    • The wigs have always confused me, actually. The basic rule is that married women must cover their hair. The intention behind hair covering is modesty, on the assumption that a woman’s hair is her calling card when she’s looking for a husband, so once she’s married she needs to cover her assets. But so many of the wigs I’ve seen are really beautiful themselves, and nicer than the woman’s natural hair, so… I remember studying this in high school and arguing with my rabbi/teacher about letter of the law versus spirit of the law, and he basically said, you just try to tell a fancy lady that she has to wear a babushka every day and we’ll see how far you get.

      Reply
      • How interesting, the way different cultures interpret their scriptures! Lots of that kind of self-serving twisting of the truth happens among Christians … which is how a certain horrible person landed in the White House … leaving many deeply committed Christians, like myself, feeling ashamed and not wanting to go to church.

      • People are so freakin’ interesting!

  11. A great post. As a cultural Jew, I was always sad at the comparisons and evaluations of my grandparents and parent’s generation. The four children raised in an orthodox home all went very different ways and sadly always made comparisons of each other.

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    • Thank you! I keep wanting to say something wise and reassuring about all of this, but the reality is that people really like to feel superior to each other. It’s a knee jerk survival instinct and it takes a lot of effort to push it into the background.

      Reply
  12. This is a very interesting read, with wonderful perspective. I can’t help but recognize the similarities that seem to exist with the Orthodox that you describe and some denominations within the Christian Evangelical movement.

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  13. I’m sure I don’t appreciate the history and significance of all the rituals and customs of the orthodox Jewish faith but I have to think that all these rules and doctrine are not what God had in kind for his people of Israel. John Lennon said it best: “imagine there’s no country, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.” Thanks Rachel for a thought provoking post that provided me with some insight guts into the struggles more moderate Jews must have to face when confronted with the more traditional factions of the religion.

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    • It’s funny but that song has always bothered me. People hold onto religion because it gives them comfort and structure to manage their lives. I’m not sure how taking that away makes things better.

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      • I agree. I love the sound of the song but the words have always bothered me too.

      • I understand the comfort that structure that organized religion provides for many; it did for me and my family for many years. But Lennon’s point – I think- was that arbitrary geographical borders and religious doctrine and dogma are man made; they are things that man has fought and killed over for centuries. Imagine if we just accepted and loved one another for who we are wherever we are. Imagine if there really was nothing to kill or die for. Imagine that.

  14. You truly are gifted at taking complex social situations and breaking them down into your own very interesting, easy to understand, perspectives. Thanks!

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  15. I made an interesting contrast between the Orthodox you saw on Long Island and those who lived around my daughter in Riverdale. There the very large families were not very well off and the women were exhausted. I have a close friend who went from Conservative to very Orthodox in her 60’s. Another close friend whose dad was a Reform rabbi now teaches in Jerusalem. So I have seen many varieties of Judaism. I think some structure comforts most of us, so some rules make sense. But OCD can afflict us all, and many conservative Christian congregations have rules that are just as life denying as some of the Orthodox ones.

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  16. I didn’t realize that there were such divisions among Jews, even the Orthodox. But for some reason, it seems to be human nature to divide people into “them” and “us” and to judge harshly those who are different. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just make our own choices and allow others to do the same? This was an excellent post, by the way!!!

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  17. That is so intriguing. I have watched and listened to a few programmes about Othodox Jews in Britain. Most recently when some families decided to move out of North London because it was too crowded and move to Canvey Island in Essex. There is an orthodox community in Bournemouth who seem to centre their seaside strolls on the mile and a half promenade betweeen the two piers, but I don’t know much about them.
    All religions divide themselves into groups, but Judaism has a longer history to preserve. Christians have a multitude of denominations and breakaways which can cause great amusement inside and outside the church. The Church of England has high and low churches and those who refuse to accept women clergy – a debate still going on!

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  18. I love that your friend is adept and makes a conscious effort to navigate her social and familial interactions in a way that makes (or tries to make) everyone feel comfortable, accepted, and intrinisically worthy.

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  19. I have no religion, but the restrictions of being Jewish do make me glad that I am not. And I mean nothing bad by that, as you know. Living under such strict rules must be overwhelmingly stressful.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  20. Love your words, love your fur babies. E.

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  21. Those photo captions are everything !

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  22. you have taught me so much, not only about being Jewish – I am a total heathen and there is little doubt I’m going to Hell but I intend to take over and make it a much nicer place – I’m already gathering decorating ideas – but about being accepting of others. Thank you.

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  23. Today I just loved the dog photos. The cation “we can’t both be dogs!” made me chuckle. Sometimes I feel my female basset “tillie” looks at “crash” with that same disdain.

    We have a reasonable Jewish presence here in Savannah with varying degrees of modern to orthodox. Actually we Christians have equally variable stances. It is just not usually seen in dress.

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  24. Rachel, this is such a great post! I just started working through a writing workshop book, and it starts off by discussing how hard description is, and for me, it definitely is. But you weave so many currents of big ideas, details, your opinions, and other people’s opinions together in a smoothly flowing stream! So your writing skills are one reason I appreciate this post.

    And then, the topic elicited so many interesting comments. I am especially thinking about Elizabeth’s, about the OCD in religion. I grew up in a small Christian denomination that refused to have any visual artwork in church, because people would start “worshipping the artwork instead of what it is meant to portray.” But the same people insisted on the King James Bible, “because the language is so beautiful.” And of course we were all supposed to “sing out! And praise the Lord with music.” It never occurred to them that language and music are art forms too.

    Later on when I read “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” it got me thinking that in our church at least, the left brain got to triumph over the right brain — “I’ll be doing all the talking in this service, while you, dear right brain, can only doodle on the margins of the bulletin.”
    🙂

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  25. Rachel, I also enjoy the sneak peak into you world. I was born and raised Catholic and I absolutely love my faith and traditions, but like you, I have gleaned the important values and embraced the aspects that enrich my life. I have trouble following ancient rules and laws that were created by ancient men with too much time on their hands. I respect all faiths, and to me, religion is a matter of logistics. Parents raise their children with what they know and how they were raided. In today’s modern informative high tech world, it all can be very confusing.

    I believe there are only two laws that should be followed. Love God and love your neighbor. I may call my God by a different name than someone else, but really, if there is only one creator, it shouldn’t matter what name we call Him. One isn’t better than the other. One isn’t wrong or right. It’s all logistics.

    Have a great day!

    Reply
  26. Thank you, very real .Its the same for Jews all over the world.

    Reply
  27. I learned a lot from your post. Thank you.

    Reply

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