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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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?

 

 

 

Language Junky

I am a multiple language learning addict, not to be confused with a multiple language speaker, which I’m really not. At least not yet. I keep wanting to add more languages to my Duolingo account, like: Russian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, etc. But I’ve tried to keep a lid on it and stick to the four I’m already working on (French, Hebrew, Spanish, and German), so that I can, maybe, get somewhere.

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Ellie is skeptical

My anxiety about speaking out loud is a big part of my problem. I get too self-conscious, and worry about making mistakes. It’s also possible, maybe, that studying four languages at a time is a problem, but I can’t help it! I have no self-control!

When I heard that Pete Buttigieg, “Mayor Pete,” speaks seven languages, and then also did a short video in American Sign Language, I felt like a horrible underachiever. I have no interest in joining the military, or being a mayor, or running for President, but being a polyglot would fill me with joy! I could read Harry Potter in every language!!!!!

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“No more Harry Potter!”

I’ve been excusing my endless hours on Duolingo as possibly for the benefit of my future career, because, you now, social workers should understand a lot of different people. That’s why I started to learn Spanish in the first place, because I had to communicate with a client who only spoke Spanish and hand gestures were not getting me very far. And, you never know, maybe I’ll come across someone who speaks French or German or Hebrew and get a chance to use my limited skills in those languages professionally as well, some day.

But, to be honest, I’m not really doing it for my job. If I were really taking it seriously as something to add to my resume, I would force myself to take in-person classes, and practice conversation, and even go to an immersion program. But that would be scary and full of pressure. And Duolingo is fun, and relaxing.

My synagogue is planning a trip to Israel next year, with a side trip to Berlin at the beginning, and an after trip to Jordan. Of course I can’t afford to go, and I’ll probably have a job by then and won’t have time to go, but it has captured my imagination.

I’ve heard a lot about the beauty of Petra, in Jordan, but that’s not really my focus. I need to go to Israel. I’ve never been there and it feels important to breathe the air and see the streets for myself. But, I want to go to Berlin. I’ve been studying German for a little while now. The original idea was to learn enough German to be able to learn Yiddish, but along the way the harsh sounds of German have been prickling my brain and trying to tell me secrets I can’t quite hear yet; about the Holocaust, definitely, but also about the German Jews who were so thoroughly German that they couldn’t imagine what was coming, couldn’t imagine being demonized and tortured and killed by their fellow countrymen. I recognize the long, slow, period of disbelief that we spend most of our lives marinating in, not quite seeing what’s really going on around us, because we just don’t want to believe that awful things can happen.

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“I always believe awful things can happen.”

Israel is a harder trip for me, because it’s so loaded with mixed feelings: the heat; the daily potential for violence; the existential crisis; the conflict between the Ultra-Orthodox and the Secular Jews; the chockablock spiritual places stuffed into one small country; the language, and the guilt I feel at still not being fluent after so many years of trying; the fear that I will feel alien even there, where I am supposed to feel, finally, at home.

I want to go with my congregation and hear what they are thinking, and feel known and visible. I want to see my best friend from high school in her natural habitat. She and her daughter have started learning Italian (not one of my languages) so I may have to add just that one more language to my Duolingo account.

I know I’m not going on this trip, and yet I think of it every day while I do my language practice, and I imagine being in Berlin and hearing German all around me, and being in Israel and trying to force myself to speak Hebrew. Both places seem full of memories for me and yet I’ve never been to either. But I couldn’t leave Mom and the girls behind for ten days, spending money we don’t have, and looking for some way to stop in Mexico or Spain to practice my Spanish, with a stopover in Paris to work on my French. It’s not going to happen, and yet, in my mind, it happens every day.

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“That sounds exhausting.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

My Watchlist

 

Sometime last fall, one of my Mom’s friends told us about something relatively new at our local library, where you can sign up for the streaming services Kanopy and Hoopla, with your library card, and watch five movies free each month, on each service. One has more television shows (especially from Acorn TV), and the other has more art films, foreign movies, and documentaries. I don’t have Hulu or Netflix or Amazon, because they cost money, and my cable bill is already prohibitive. So I signed up for Kanopy and Hoopla right away, even though I wasn’t sure if these services would have anything of real interest to me. And then I spent hours scrolling through the options, and dropping dozens of movies and TV shows onto my watchlists. There are tons of television shows from outside of the United States on Hoopla that I’d never seen, and videos on psychological topics, and all kinds of music and history shows. Then, on Kanopy, I found a trove of movies from Israel, and the rest of the Middle East, some in Hebrew, some in English, and all new to me.

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“Je ne comprend pas, Maman.”

Of course, I started out with the TV shows, lots of mysteries set in Dublin and Australia and New Zealand and England. I watched on my phone while I was on the semi-recumbent bike, because each episode was the perfect length for an exercise session. There’s a show called No Offence that is absolutely addictive; a British police drama with a sense of humor and a uniquely female sensibility, including three female leads. American TV shows tend to run in seasons of twenty-two episodes, so the realization that each season of this show only had seven or eight episode was heartbreaking. But I made up for it by watching a lot of different shows.

No Offence

And then I pushed myself to watch the documentaries; some of it was hard to watch, and some of it challenged my prejudices, but all of it seemed to be expanding the world I could feel comfortable in, bit by bit.

There was a documentary about Autistic kids in New Jersey, on a Special Olympics swim team, and one about a high school for the Arts in Los Angeles, and then seniors in a Jewish nursing home, and training a guide dog in Japan. It took a while for me to be willing to watch the Israel-related movies, because I was worried about what I’d find. The most difficult for me to watch, months along in the journey, was called The Settlers, about the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers in the West Bank. I knew about the settlements. I knew that Orthodox Jews had started to move into the occupied territories after the 1967 war, when Israel captured land from the surrounding countries, including the West Bank territories from Jordan, but I didn’t know how much violence was involved. I didn’t know how terrible the rhetoric was. It was extremely painful to see and hear terrorist ramblings from my own people; from people I could have gone to school with, or prayed with.

The Settlers

This documentary was aimed at Jews, like me, who don’t know enough about the settlements and the settlers. It is not a balanced view of the overall situation in Israel, because it assumes you already have that information from other sources. It helped that before I watched The Settlers, I watched a documentary about the kibbutz movement in Israel – a utopian social experiment that helped to create the country, but has largely fizzled out, though some kibbutzim are still trying to adapt to the modern state of Israel. And then another documentary about Modern Orthodox teenagers form America spending a post high school year in Israel.

I feel like my headspace is widening with all of these shows from other countries, making me feel less isolated in my own world. TV has always been my way of researching the human condition, because I found it so hard to understand the people I saw in person as a kid. I couldn’t figure out what was going on in their heads, or in their lives, but people on TV told me so much more about themselves and their lives. Watching on a tiny screen doesn’t really change that feeling of openness, except that now I have access to even more people and even more worlds I’d never otherwise see.

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“I need my own, Mommy?”

I can’t promise that I will watch every difficult movie on my Watchlist, because there are too many to choose from, but I feel stronger for making the effort. Now if only they had a category for movies about dogs, or better yet, starring dogs. Cricket and Ellie would love to meet some Irish Wolfhounds, or French poodles, or Australian shepherds with authentic accents. Cricket used to have an English Bulldog friend named Rupert, but he had a distinctly American bark, and that was disappointing.

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“Woof woof.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, 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.

 

Vacation

 

Possibly as an escape, I’ve noticed myself imagining trips around the world, like, visiting my high school friend in Israel, or wandering through the Luxembourg gardens in Paris, or trying out my tiny cache of Spanish in Mexico or Barcelona. I want to go back to Prince Edward Island, where we went camping when I was three and four years old, to see it again in person. Then to Montreal, to see what French bagels taste like, or what Yiddish flavored French sounds like. I want to go on a cruise to Alaska, or Newfoundland. I want to see more of the world, but not the hot spots. I can’t deal with the hot spots. I’d have to go to Israel in the winter in order to bear it. I’d like to go on the Orient Express, or something like it, and write mysteries as I go. I want to go to New Zealand and see all of the places Mom took pictures of on her trip ten years ago.

But I worry. Vacations have never quite gone the way I hoped, if only because I bring myself with me. I don’t get a vacation from self-loathing, or exhaustion, or physical pain. I want to be someone who can walk all day through the streets of Paris, or Montreal, or Venice (unless Venice is all canals at this point), but I know I can’t do that. I’d wipe out in the first hour and need to lie down and wrap myself in heating pads just to make it to day two.

And Cricket is a real obstacle. I’m not sure there’s any place Cricket would be willing to stay, without her humans, for more than two minutes. We used to go for weekend trips upstate, or to DC, and bring Cricket (and Butterfly) along, but Cricket is a lot of work on a trip, and doesn’t do much to ingratiate herself to outsiders. She’s a special horror in elevators.

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Miss Butterfly, with her roll of paper towels, on a road trip.

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Miss Cricket, helping Grandma drive.

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“Get me out of this elevator, right now!”

The other option is to go by myself and leave Cricket with her grandma at home, but that sounds awful to me. I had this idea for a trip across Europe, to follow in my mom’s footsteps from her solo trip when she was eighteen years old, and stayed in youth hostels, and went to acting camp in the south of France, and visited the Aran Islands, because they were the star of her favorite play. But I wouldn’t want to take that trip without her there to tell me what happened where and how things have changed since then.

And then there’s the logistics, like updating my passport, figuring out maps in strange cities, and getting any kind of clue about the exchange rate between dollars and euros. And would my cell phone even work? And, really, who could afford such a trip?

There’s one other thing that gives me pause.      My rabbi has a habit of saying that one of the few things he asks of his daughters is that they keep their passports up to date, just in case. And he doesn’t mean just in case they take a family trip to Greece. He means, just in case America spits us out as the strangers we are, and we have to be ready to run. This is my country. This is where I was born and where my parents, and three of my four grandparents, were born. This is my context. Long Island, New York, USA. It’s hard to see a vacation out of this country as a good thing, when in the back of my mind I’m afraid that I won’t be allowed back in, or won’t want to return, which would be even worse.

So, for now, I’m just going to live in my imagination, and practice my languages, and wonder what the trip would be like. Cricket likes this idea much better, too.

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Much, much better.

 

My Nephew is Going to Israel

 

My nephew is going to Israel for his gap year between high school and college. It has become de rigeur for kids from orthodox Jewish schools to spend a gap year in a yeshiva or seminary (for girls) in Jerusalem, immersing themselves in Jewish studies, Hebrew language, and maybe even the political realities of the Middle East. I wouldn’t want to spend a year in Israel, though, even now. I’m kind of addicted to familiar things. I could manage a week away, maybe ten days, tops. Though even that would strain Cricket’s anxiety disorder to the breaking point. Mine too. I’m impressed by all of these eighteen and nineteen year old kids who have the self-confidence to go to another country for a whole school year.

And the state of peace in Israel is always shaky; flair ups can come at any time. The recent violence at the holy sites could be forgotten by the time my nephew even gets on the plane, or it could grow into a conflagration. Many parents will send their kids to Israel during wars or uprisings. I don’t know why they feel so confident that their children will be safe, but they do.

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This is how I’d feel about it.

 

My nephew probably won’t be visiting a kibbutz, because there aren’t many left. Israel is a tech crazy country with some of the best medical research facilities in the world; it’s not a country of people living on collective farms, picking oranges, anymore. Will the boys get to meet the Palestinians who live on the other side of Jerusalem? Or visit the Knesset (the parliament) to hear arguments from politicians from the many different sides? Or will they spend all of their time studying Talmud and meeting other Jews? Maybe even only other American teens like the ones they grew up with, instead of the Russian or Ethiopian or French or Indian Jews who have found their home in Israel.

It took me a long time to even dip my toe into the waters of modern Israeli history, and I still can’t say that I fully understand the conflicts and points of view of everyone involved. I know that my support for Israel is tribal rather than logical, but then, I think that’s probably true of everyone, on either side.

I have seen and heard a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric recently, and some of it goes over the line into the anti-Semitic language used during the Holocaust. But I have also heard prejudiced arguments and comments from some Jews that are not only unconvincing but disturbingly racist in nature. Smarter and better informed people than me will have to figure it all out and find the compromises that will work. I don’t have answers, or ease, on this issue.

But what I do have is a deep understanding of the need to live somewhere surrounded by people who are like you. I grew up going to Jewish schools where we could each be who we were – the athlete, the musician, the artist, the brain, the druggy – and not be defined by everyone around us as “the Jew.”

I am an American Jew, though. America is my country, my home. This is where my family is, where my dogs are, living and dead. It would be nice to visit Israel, though, and see how it feels to be one among many, and no longer in a minority, surrounded by my people’s history, deep in the ground under my feet.

Unfortunately for me, the Jewish state is in the Middle East, in the desert, where it is too freaking hot. Maybe if the Jewish state were somewhere like Vancouver, I’d be more eager to go. I wonder how Cricket would take to traveling in a plastic crate under my feet.

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I mean, she has fit herself into smaller places.

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When she was a puppy.