culture/multiculturalism · hair · Hispanics/Latinos · Jesus · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · rabbi · speaking · women/feminism · writing

Brooklyn College Take Two: Ruminations on my latest talk

My energy level is dropping quickly but I hate to finish the day without remarking on my talks at Brooklyn College today. A really cool professor there had me come in to speak to his students, another professor’s students and the broader Brooklyn College audience. Incredibly, I was representing the Judaic Studies, Latino Studies and Women’s Studies department in a talk labeled “Memoirs of a Jewminicana: Blending American, Dominican, Jewish, and Gender Identities. I was somehow also representing for the Honors Society! Had they somehow realized that a true Dominican ghetto nerd was in their midst? I guess they had.

I felt like I had only just left Brooklyn since I had just recently spoken at the Hillel. But this was quite a different crowd. Easily the crowd was just as diverse, if not more, with plenty of non-Jews in the mix as it would seem my identity issues didn’t just speak to Jews but also to a wider audience. While many of my jokes fell flat (or splat as the case maybe), some ran across cultures. I think what was great about giving these speeches was that some people really seemed to take to my out of the box thinking, my idea that people don’t fix into the tiny boxes we try to force them in, that people are more than boxes. It’s not an innovative thought but it’s a thought I’m chewing over aloud.

And as usual, there were some killer questions that made me fantasize about returning to teaching just so I could answer them from that little throne I called a classroom. Among the questions asked:

“Will you support your children if they decided to go a different way? Perhaps, if they decide to become Christian?”

I think I surprised the student when I said, “Well, no. I think that most parents like to think they’re creating children in their own image, imbuing them with their own cultural values. We want to hope that they pick what we have chosen because we believe it’s the best way but that is not always the case.” Later on, I clarified that while my grandmother, for instance, is not SUPPORTIVE of the fact that I’m Jewish, because she would much rather that I be “a baby Jesus lover,” she does still accept me, that I’m still the same me that I have always been and that I will always be her grandchild despite issues that would threaten to divide us.

Another fun question because I had been pondering it myself was:

“Where would I choose to live if for some reason, in some alternative universe, the Dominican Republic, Israel and America all went to war?”

The guy asking the question was pretty adamant that he felt the most spiritual in Israel and I think many Jews, including myself, would agree. But would I leave my blu-ray DVD player behind for the possibility of losing electricity constantly in DR or for roughing it in those sparse apartments in Jerusalem? I told them that I think as Jews we always have to be wary, history has seen fit to document that almost every country in the world has screwed us at some place in time but there will always be Jews who feel more comfortable in the diaspora as well as Jews who feel more comfortable in our homeland, Israel.

And the last question that sticks out was about the way I cover my hair!!! I thought this kind of question was reserved for weddings or for when my husband becomes rabbi of some congregation that wants to mold me in their image. The black-kippah-wearing professor who posed the question said that I presented a dichotomy by saying that I loved and followed Orthodoxy but then did not cover my hair. My latest fashionable poka dot headband was not cutting it for him. And was it my imagination or did I hear him telling some student that it didn’t matter what I called myself, if I wasn’t following things to the letter of the law I wasn’t Orthodox? The fact that fibromyalgia and head coverings often do not mix and that I strive to always have a little something in my hair (despite the fact hats and sheitels do not often fit on my head) was an excuse according to him.

Heavy, right? It’s an interesting position I put myself in. I let it all hang out (or so it seems) and that leaves room for people to judge, question and remark on the way I love with my life. I’m still not sure if I’m following G-d’s plan, if living my life in this kind of spotlight is what’s in the cards for me. But for now, I am happy sharing parts of my life with all these different people, even the ones who would rather I wasn’t sharing at all.

24 thoughts on “Brooklyn College Take Two: Ruminations on my latest talk

  1. Dare I point out that there are still MO women who don’t cover their hair? Should I also point out that, pre WWII, the wives of prominent Litvish and Chassidish rabbis also didn’t cover? It’s only in the last generation or two that hair covering has become a litmus test for being Orthodox enough.I hear you on the fibro issues. I wear hates–rarely. I usually stick to cotton voile scarves. I finally found a Christian company that makes wonderful, pretty, super-light cotton snoods. And I have silky curls that shrink down with ease to fit under a cover. I can’t imagine what options you’d have, aside from either keeping your hair less than 1″ long or growing it out until it was long enough to put into some kind of bun and then wrapping a covering around that.Do you want the name of my preferred snood manufacturer? They do custom work too, so if you want one with more space to fit your hair, they should do it bigger for you easily.


  2. A number of them straighten their hair. Problem solved. My rabbi honestly had no idea what to do with me when I started having trouble. I refuse to straighten my hair. It is a concession I am not willing to make and it doesn’t seem right for the halakha to rule in this direction.


  3. I don’t blame you for not straightening, the heat and chemicals are just brutal! Not to mention, it’s a huge time drain. It’s either that, though, or go Chassidishe-stye and shave. I can understand why you’d chose an alternate path.


  4. I shaved once too! I lost half my hair due to Hashimoto’s disease. Then I caught head lice, said screw it, and shaved. This was before I met my fiance, and he’s seen the pictures. He thinks it’s cute in an abstract “Margaret, please, please, PLEASE don’t ever do that again” sort of way. It was an interesting experience. It’s been 2.5 years since I shaved and it’s below my shoulders now. I’m gad I did it. It was incredibly liberating, and sometimes, I wish I could do it again, but I probably never will.I know a couple of BTs who became Chassidishe who were given heterim to not shave. Because their husbands had also not grown up Chassidic, and were unused to the idea of women shaving their heads, they were allowed to keep their hair and cover it with a sheitel, lest the women become unattractive to their husbands.


  5. I know a girl who keeps a very little afro under her sheitel.Well I haven’t seen it, but I bet it’s adorable.Does it ever bother you that you don’t cover your hair?I guess hair covering and the ensuing brochos it brings down on your family and all that jazz that I learned *almost* makes me want to cover my hair. (As in enjoy it while doing it). (Sorry I tend to ask the personal questions, but it always makes for lovely awkward conversations).


  6. Rabanit Hausman-You have the terrible misfortune of meeting up with such miserable, awful people! Is it a New York thing or a manifestation of charedi Ashkenazi religious heroism? You might want to remind your detractor that the wife of Rav Yosef Baer Soleveitchik didn’t cover her hair at all!Now personally, as a devoted fan of HBO’s “Big Love, I would love to have told this rabbi chap at Brooklyn College that he should cover his hair with the white “Temple” caps worn by men in Mormon endowment ceremonies such as the one portrayed in this week’s episode.


  7. Oh I missed that. I thought… okay re-read. Sorry. (I thought it read that you didn’t, but on a second reading my question doesn’t make sense).


  8. I don’t blame the Rabbi for saying that. I’m sure he meant well by it.The most important thing in a Jewish woman’s life is modesty. In the entire Torah, the only compliment and praise Hashem gives a righteous Jewish woman is about her modesty. All of them, Sarah, Rivka, all the others. It was only praises for their modesty. As unbelievable as it may sound to some, for a Jewish woman it is considered worse to violate the rules of modesty than to violate Shabbat.


  9. I’m down with what you’re saying Anonymous and that’s probably why I didn’t sock the guy. But no, I don’t think it’s alright to go around attacking people. I’m not going to justify the actions of one meanie with halakha. There was a better way to get his point across and that wasn’t it.


  10. Anonymous–the thing is, there are halkhic guidelines on what you’re allowed to say if you’re criticizing a Jew’s religious practice. You can only correct something if you think they’re likely to change. The professor who commented should have had to sense to realize that a snide remark from a complete stranger was unlikely to change Aliza’s behavior, so even if he thought she was doing wrong, he should have kept quiet.


  11. Well I agree with both of you. He could of definitely handled this better. I’m sure being dissected like that in front of so many people was very uncomfortable. It was just plain rude. It’s unfortunate because I’m sure he meant well but the way he channeled it was wrong. Did he even know you had fibro? I know someone not with fibro but she sometimes gets chronic muscle pain in her arms. The Sephardic tradition is that all the hair must be covered, everything, and that means no wigs. So you can just imagine what she goes through everyday. She can’t get help to cover it everyday so sometimes she goes out without a headscarf. Now everyone around here knows the terrible pain she is going through.We all know because an overzealous Rabbi once called her out in public like this Rabbi did to you, he was very angry asking why her head wasn’t covered. She simply said I have a medical condition, when I lift my arms up my triceps feel on fire. Perhaps you can bring over your wife to help me cover my head every morning. Embarrassed, the Rabbi just turned around and left. I think some Rabbis just need to dig a little deeper before they criticize.


  12. Anonymous–I empathize with your friend. Like Aliza, I have fibromyalgia, as well as arthritis in the vertebrae in my back. I can’t keep my arms above my head for more than 30 seconds. My fiancehas been trained to tie scarves over my hair on those days. He also brushes and braids my hair–I told him that was the tradeoff for me keeping my hair long. (In case you’re confused as to why I cover my hair and I’m not married–I’m not Jewish.)I know of a woman who gets blinding headaches from having too much weight on her head. She even needs to keep her own hair cut very short. She has a heter to uncover her hair–and this is not an MO woman, she’s quite Chareidi. It caused her a huge deal of emotional distress when she realized she couldn’t tolerate any covering.


  13. Well, what can a gal do? Converts are always going to be held to higher standards. A born Jew from Great Neck can say that haircovering is minhag hamakom, and the Rav’s wife didn’t do it, and it just isn’t _me_, and blah blah blah. Whereas converts will be criticized for anything other than a tichel down to the eyebrows. What a jerk this dude is.But, as of course you know, there is always a price for following a “minority opinion.” It sounds like you’re coping fairly well. Be strong!


  14. Worried now that some people reading will think I’m making a joke on ethnic minorities and their hair. No, I mean a minority opinion per Jewish law. Most say that a married woman must either cover all of her hair, or not leave more than about four inches showing (for women with the cute little Great Neck hats). Others say that the requirement to cover (at all) is dependent on the community. Still others say that although you should cover as much as possible, at least put something, a “basket,” up there.Sadly, minority opinions are usually considered a luxury for born Jews only. See, for instance, R. Avi Weiss’ conversion issue that you linked to–there are legit opinions saying that converts can serve on conversion batei dinim, but most opinions say otherwise.If one is a convert, and says, about certain things, I am following halacha, but not the majority opinion, it’s very, very hard. This is different that saying I am a convert, and there are certain areas of halacha that I cannot follow, as would be the case with, say, someone who lived in Boro Park and did not put anything on her head at all. However controversial this would be–very–it’s less fraught than standing by a minority opinion.There is also a difference–and it may not be p.c. to point it out–between lecturing on, say, Bible or kashrut or Yiddish theatre, and mentioning, by the way, I did convert and this is how I cover my hair, go to hell. What you are doing is speaking on conversion _as such_, Jewish identity _as such_, and (rude, ill-bred) onlookers may feel that your visible evidence of halachic observance is not representative of what is expected of most, not all, Orthodox converts. I know that, you know that, we all know that. But it doesn’t mean your decisions are wrong.


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