Here’s a new piece I’m working on. I hope I’ll find a place to publish it. I think it definitely has an audience in fellow converts, baalei teshuva, and basically those of us who have had more experience in the non-Orthodox, not Jewish world.
I had tea with Jason yesterday. And it was fun. He had extended the invite to the whole class but only I took him up on it. But there were aftershocks. My husband’s face when I told him that I went to tea with a classmate—a male classmate—was less than sunshiny. It contorted with jealousy as he explained to me that it wasn’t appropriate for me to be having tea with another man. When I argued my case (“We were in Starbucks, for G-d’s sake!”), my husband eventually relented. But, oh boy, the whole experience left me thinking about the state of male-female friendships in the Orthodox world.
I remember a time when most of my friends were boys. Before I converted, boys made up more than 50% of my crew of friends. I favored friendships with boys that had never been sullied by messy boy-girl game playing. When my friend, AC put in my air conditioner, sure, the neighbors wondered if he was my boyfriend. But I assured them there was nothing there. AC was just handy with tools and even handier as a broad shoulder to cry on. Then there was Stathis, who treated me like a kid sister, making me tuna fish sandwiches when I visited his dorm. And my friend, metrosexual Mark was, well, largely immune to my tomboy charm. AC, Stathis and Mark could have been my best girl friends were it not for certain body parts that proved otherwise.
During my conversion to Judaism, I had a set of Jewish girlfriends who congregated together for Shabbos sleepovers. But I also had a matching set of close guy friends who were mostly Modern Orthodox yeshiva students. No one clued me into the fact that these relationships might be anything other than normal. I knew they couldn’t be alone with me in a room but that just meant that I hung out with them in groups of, well, mostly guys. I knew I wasn’t one of the guys but they seemed to accept me despite my skirt.
Then I summered at a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conversion school in Israel. When a fellow female classmate asked if she should move if a man sat next to her on the bus, I almost laughed out loud. My giggles stopped cold when I realized she was serious and no one else in the room was laughing. My eyebrows furrowed in confusion as I announced that my best friend back home was M-A-L-E. All eyes shifted to me, totally awkward. When I glanced at the headmistress, I could swear her eyes were daggers and puffs of smoke flamed from her nostrils. The shock was too much to stomach for a recovering tomboy. Surely, these rules didn’t apply to the Modern Orthodox crowd where I had developed such close friendships with men, usually Kohens, who were, again, like the best girlfriends I’d never had.
But I found out soon enough that the same rules did apply. As soon as I got married or my guy friends got married, our friendships tanked. They didn’t just become filmy substitutes for the close bonds we had had before, our friendships were non-existent. I found myself wishing that all my male friends were women but acknowledging that would be hard on their wives. So, instead, I stopped wishing and started sulking.
I suffered silently from the lack of companionship of my pseudo big brothers, guys who I know would have defended my honor like real brothers. But I just sat with the girls in one corner. I rolled my eyes through conversations about shoes, clothes, cooking and (oh no!) sheitel upkeep. I looked longingly at the other end of the table where my husband and the other men seemed to be enjoying more scintillating conversation. I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from my loss. Maybe that’s why I had tea with Jason. And I enjoyed it. It took me back to a time before restrictive gender roles erected an invisible mechitzah between me and my guy friends.