From the second I checked through security at JFK with a cadre of ultra-Orthodox Jews, easily identified by their white shirts, black suits and coats, and black hats, I realized how different this year in Israel was going to be for me. After years of being the most religious girl around…
Elementary school = The girl who misses school for Jewish holidays.
Middle school = The girl with 3 bar/bat mitzvahs per weekend.
High school = The “Orthodox girl” / USY nerd.
College = The girl who leads services / “This one time, at USY on Wheels camp.”
Penguin = The girl who worked part-time during the Jewish holidays (all of October) / The girl that nearly died from something non-Kosher.
JTS = Less religious than the rabbinical students, but dating one anyway.
…I was going to be seen as secular. Me? Secular? Who are we kidding?? Yes, I wear tank tops. Yes, I read Torah. But I READ TORAH, keep kosher (hot dairy, as per the Conservative movement) and I study to be a Jewish educator. I work very hard to bring Jewish experiences to learners of all ages. I identify almost exclusively in my Judaism. I study the Bible and Skills for Teaching. I am working on Israel education in the Diaspora. I am a Jew, and a supporter of the state of Israel.
This weekend, my roommate Allison (hello, loyal, Allison-related readers) and I spent Shabbat with my cousins (Dad’s first cousin and his wife, to be exact) in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof (literally, mountain view). While most of my (Masorti / Conservative) friends looked concerned, or outright expressed their concern that I had to take a trip to this exclusively religious neighborhood, I was excited. Not only are my cousins really nice, welcoming and fun, they always give me insight to my complicated family history, of which I only get a chunk from my dad, grandparents and uncles.
Yes, I will admit that putting on a long skirt and long sleeves, when it is easily 80 degrees Farenheit, desert-style, is very difficult for a girl from Florida. I will admit that I agonized over the shoes I wanted to wear (closed-toed are better for shul in Har Nof). I will admit that I worried about my elbows showing (no matter how much I joke, I care to be modest, whatever that means in the place I am staying). But as Allison and I made my way to Har Nof, I was happy, if not a little shvitzy (sweaty).
We went to shul with cousin David at a Breslov (branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism) synagogue across the street. Being in the Women’s Section, divided from the men by a mechitza (a separating barrier, in this case, made out of wood and with lace curtains at the top), we davened with the men. The women don’t lead the services, but at this shul, I was happy to hear that we were allowed to sing along. The service was lovely and not too crowded, and watching the men dance after services, peering through the lace curtain, I learned that Breslavers always dance in a circle after services. It was really cool…and so were the furry, round hats some of the men wore.
Dinner was with my cousins and their neighbors, and took place in the sukkah on the balcony of the apartment. It was really cool. The husband of the guests, a ba’al teshuvah (a term for somebody who “comes back” to religion, becoming more religious), quizzed Allison and me on our views as Conservative Jews in a slightly uncomfortable way. I explained my goals as a student, and was careful in my wording, as I respect his found happiness and meaning in Orthodoxy. Even with the slightly uncomfortable feeling of different views at the same table, there was plenty of singing and discussion of Torah and other important bodies of Jewish writings flowing around the table like the RC Cola with Cherry Heering (I FOUND IT, ZAYDE! Dad, tell Zayde!)…and the food was awesome!
After dinner, my cousins apologized for their guests making us uncomfortable. As I brushed this off, saying that I wasn’t really offended, I secretly added this to my arsenal of cool things about my cousins – they have such kavod (respect) for others, and didn’t want us to feel uncomfortable as guests. They are also from the Midwest, and with that comes not only a calm and collected way of interacting with poeple, but a background in the less-religious reality of growing up in a (more) secular town (than Jerusalem).
The rest of Shabbat was nice. I slept through services because of an early-morning stomach ache, only to enjoy a beautiful lunch in the sukkah. I read over a hundred pages in my book (currently, Kavalier and Clay), and concluded the Sabbath, and visit, with a special havdallah (separation ceremony between Shabbat and the week) in the Sukkah. Gloria and I talked about my whole family, from my grandparents all the way to my brothers and the minutiae of their daily lives in DC and FL. I learned a lot about my cousins, their children and their lives, and basked in the glow of the proud grandparents, checking out pictures of the grandkids, and enjoying the newest album of their latest Kohen (descended from the priestly tribe of Jews from the time of the Bible), who is just 1 month old.
While enjoying this weekend, it hit me again. Because of the way I dress (jeans and tank tops), the way that I choose to daven (egalitarian), and other lifestyle choices (like not getting married early), I am the secular other in the state of Israel. I may not feel secular, but in comparison to the religious right, I guess I am. I, Sara Beth B, little miss super-Jew of Coral Springs, Gainesville, even the Upper West Side, am a chiloni (secular Jew) in dati (religious) clothing.