chronic pain/fibromyalgia · clothing · food · hair · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · language · rabbi · Rabbi Avi Weiss · race/racism · Riverdale · services · wedding

What I hate about being an Orthodox Jew OR How My Rastafarian Beret Came to Represent Rabbi Avi Weiss, HIR and YCT

Twittering before, during, after the wedding:

Going to a wedding today. Separate seating for men and women. Sheitels and fancy hats will abound. Will try not to wear a sack. 9:40 AM Mar 22nd from web

My father-and sister-in-law are in town for the wedding and passed out on our couches. Because I am not social being, I am on Twitter. 12:50 PM Mar 22nd from web

Covering my hair for the wedding in Monsey with Rastafarian beret. Only thing that will fit on head without pain. about 24 hours ago from mobile web

At wedding, my hat got one long suffering look. Otherwise, doing fine. about 21 hours ago from mobile web

Of course, schmoozed with the help in Spanish at the wedding. about 19 hours ago from web

Got asked if I was making a statement with Rastafarian hat. They think it has something to do with the left-wing school my husband attends. about 19 hours ago from web

Why must the first five minutes of every Orthodox Jewish encounter be Jewish geography? Do u know this person who went 2 that school who….about 19 hours ago from web

Wedding Recap:

In the Orthodox Jewish world, weddings are a big deal. They are a great cause for celebration. Relatives from all over the world, no matter how they’re related, will fly in just to get a taste of the celebration.

In Aliza’s world, weddings are just damn stressful. Weddings are full of awkward encounters with strangers and stranger family members whose names I can’t or don’t want to remember. Weddings mean driving too long to strange locales, which leads to pain. Weddings mean noise and too much sitting and waiting, which in the end also lead to pain (both physical and mental).

Part of my husband’s extended family has been blessed with two weddings in the same month! And if it were up to me, I would attend one wedding, if even that much, a year. For example, attending a friend’s wedding is very different from attending a wedding for extended family. At the friend’s wedding, you will be seated with people you normally choose to hang out with. At the relative’s wedding, you will be seated with people G-d in his infinite wisdom and awkward sense of humor has bound you to via marriage and blood. I prefer attending a friend’s wedding. Usually, the seating arrangements are safer and lead to no family bloodshed.

And by now, you’ve probably read my previous rants on weddings and how awkward they are for a convert, for a kid who grew up on welfare, etc. Honestly, it feels like every wedding serves as a reminder of how much of an outsider I still am and always will be.

The first 5-10 minutes of every conversation are a game of Jewish geography where everyone tries to figure out how they are connected to each other visa vie the Orthodox Jewish world. But a convert is not connected. I didn’t go to any fancy day schools. I didn’t grow up in Jewish neighborhood. I don’t have any kids, shoes or sheitels (wigs) to talk about. I don’t want to talk about my outfit. I don’t want to talk about my job because my primary job is as a self-employed sick person and I don’t want to talk about my disability either.

The thing is that, in the past, I have had awkward conversations about all these things at weddings. I learned the hard way to never talk about them again. So last night, the lady next to me had to suffer from how I’ve learned to talk. She probably went home thinking she was sitting next to the most mysterious or shyest person in the world. Um, can you imagine me as mysterious or shy? But then, I responded to every question with a question or no response at all.

The lady next to me started the conversation with Jewish geography, of course, but that failed miserably. I didn’t know how I was related to the wedding party and so the conversation fell flat right away. She, of course, tried again because Jewish geography is supposed to a foolproof! She asked me where I lived and I said “Riverdale” and then I let my eyes glaze over as she named everyone she knew there. I assured her I didn’t know anyone. And then I played mute.

The conversation should have turned to work as it had with all the relatives who ran into me that evening. I had practiced deflecting their questions artfully because in my experience, the less family knows about your life, the better. But I noticed that people were much more interested in asking me about my job (blogging, freelancing, writing) than talking about theirs because many were unemployed or underemployed thanks to the economic downturn.

But the woman sitting next to me didn’t talk about work for different reasons. She explained she hadn’t worked full-time in ages because of her kids. I have found that at separate seating weddings (there’s a men’s side and a women’s side), women of a certain age are not talking about what they do for a living because their primary job in recent years has been taking care of kids.

I perked up, though, when the woman next to her mentioned Washington Heights. I said I missed the Heights terribly. Finally, I let a little information out. I said I was born and raised in the Heights. The woman next to me jumped on this information. Again, though it had failed before, she tried Jewish geography. “Did you grow up on the YU (Yeshiva University) side or the Breuer’s side?” she asked. I knew the next question if I answered correctly would be whether or not I knew Rabbi X or Rabbi Y? But instead, I said “I grew up in the middle.”

If my head hadn’t totally been covered, she might have guessed I was Dominican or a convert. But I was rocking a Rastafarian hat (at a wedding in Monsey no less) because it was the only thing that fit on my head without pain that day. I looked the part of Sephardic, very alternative, Jew. So the woman next to me made a wild leap at Jewish geography. She connected the information she had: “lives in Riverdale” and “husband is a rabbinical student” and “wearing a Rastafarian beret” to Rabbi Avi Weiss because signs, according to her, pointed to the fact that I attended his synagogue in Riverdale.

No one had mentioned my hat all evening. I had coached myself on the way to the wedding. If anyone said anything, I was going to let loose on the troubles of covering my hair. I was going to give them a piece of my mind. I was going to rip off my hat and smack them. I wasn’t prepared for what the woman said next. She connected all those dots and decided, “Well, I could tell with your hat, you were obviously trying to make a statement. And so you’re probably connected to Avi Weiss’s shul and his school.”

I did the only thing I could do: I laughed. I even tried to explain that this was the only hat that fit over my afro at the moment. I tried to explain I normally wore head scarves. I even thought to point out that plenty of the women connected to Avi Weiss’s shul, HIR (Hebrew Institute of Riverdale), and his rabbinical school, YCT (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah), own sheitels and probably only one would be crazy enough to wear a Rastafarian hat to a Monsey wedding: me. She wasn’t hearing any of it. She said obviously, I could have straightened my hair or cut it short to wear sheitels but I didn’t because I wanted to make a statement about a certain kind of Orthodoxy.

It never fails. My head, whether totally covered or slightly uncovered, always makes a statement. And rarely, the right one. And I realized afterwards that this is I really hate about weddings. It’s that people sit around and judge each other based on their head coverings, their shoes, their children and they decide that these things represent a certain movement within the Jewish world.

And I wasn’t any better. I had been sucked into it. I had already decided that Orthodox Jews, white people with money, were just damn rude and I didn’t want to be associated with them. This idea was only compounded by my husband’s story about one Orthodox man in his Yiddish accent who yelled “Bandman! Are you the bandman!” at one unsuspecting member of the staff instead of politely asking if he could help him make the announcement for mincha services. It was hard for me to remember hearing this that I have plenty of nice Orthodox Jewish friends who aren’t rude to non-Jews, who don’t base their judgments of people on their clothes but on what comes out of their mouths.

The only time I felt like I belonged all night was when I fell into easy Spanish with the woman serving me the most delicious ribs and rice at the buffet. My husband noted that the other woman’s face had lit up, too. Probably because I was not only one of the few people saying “Please” and “Thank you,” I was also speaking to her in her native tongue like we were on common ground, not like she was “the help.”

I don’t want to go to these weddings anymore. I don’t want to come home afterwards and rip off my clothes and find that I feel dirty because I feel like I’ve been slimed by all the things I hate about being an Orthodox Jew. I hate the materialism. I hate the insularity. And I REALLY hate the way we use each other’s clothes and bank accounts to put each other into tight suffocating little boxes that divide us.

23 thoughts on “What I hate about being an Orthodox Jew OR How My Rastafarian Beret Came to Represent Rabbi Avi Weiss, HIR and YCT

  1. I hate going to most weddings as well. They are too long, in Chicago most Orthodox weddings have the dreadful separate seating, and these yeshiva bands ought to be deported to Gitmo for what they do to music.

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  2. Yes, separate seating is dreadful. At the very least, I should be allowed to suffer through these things with my husband by my side. The fact that they are very long only further exacerbates my fibromyalgia. Don’t get me started on the music. Same songs every wedding. I think I’m almost starting to learn the words.

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  3. Listen, you can wear whatever you want on your head. But it shouldn’t SURPRISE you when people comment on a Rastafarian hat. I say it affectionately, but come _on_. This is Orthodoxy! It isn’t about being a good Jew or a halachically observant Jew or a lover of the Jewish people or being mekabel ol malchut shamayim. It’s about hanging with NY Orthodox people, and this is what they’re like. You know that. I’m not trying to minimize your pain and frustration, heaven forbid. But them is the breaks.Praise the lord, it looks like you’ll be getting out of here soon.

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  4. On a more practical note, there are solid-color rastafarian berets around, if the shape works for your hair and the typical color scheme is a pain in the rear.Then people will tell you you’re an ovedet avodah zarah, because Rastafarians think Haile Selassie is God, and Rastafarians hold an eternal copyright on that crochet pattern. Converts can’t win.All this is one of the main reasons I don’t get out much anymore. I do have my close friends, thank Heaven, and I love them very much, but the rest just isn’t worth it.

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  5. lol hilarious blog. I just don’t understand why someone who doesn’t want to attract any kind of attention at a wedding decides to wear a Rastafarian hat.I understand the health issues and why you chose that. But wow, it had to be that color? If you’re off to wedding you could of asked someone to help you with your headscarf. Or just pick something more subtle, surely there were other options?

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  6. Anonymous, as I mentioned through the piece, none of my other hats fit my hair/head anymore. And all the head scarves I tried on only led to instant flare-ups of pain. So in the end, I was left with a pile of Rastafarian berets that fit my head and weren’t painful. I had bought them early on in Venice Beach and I never expected that they would be the only thing I would have to wear to a wedding. It was either that Rastafarian beret or not covering my hair at all. Can you see my problem?

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  7. AlizaSomeone said to you that instead of the baret, you “could have straightened [your] hair or cut it short to wear sheitels but [you] didn’t because [you] wanted to make a statement about a certain kind of Orthodoxy.”In your blog post, “The Many Stages of Getting Pissed” where you cut your hair to fit it into a shaitel you said, “My husband nearly passed out when he saw my nearly bald head. He didn’t think it was attractive. He missed every blessed curly lock. His friends tried to console him while my hair grew back. And when it finally did, he made me promise never to shave it again.”I don’t judge your hair-covering decisions for good or bad or within the realm of Jewish Law. However, from a logistical standpoint, it certainly seems your hair-covering decisions are grounded with the segment of Orthodoxy you identify with. If you were a person who identified as a Chareidi or “ultra-Orthodox” you would find a way to wear a shaitel or other conventional hair-covering. So, it inherently seems you are making a statement about a “certain type of Orthodoxy”.

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  8. Many of my friends who identify as Orthodox wear sheitels and other conventional hair-coverings. For the most part, they have straight hair that is easy to fit under these head coverings. In fact, I would argue, these hair coverings are shaped with them in mind. They are not for women who have afros. They are not for women who have kinky hair. They are not for women who not have fibromyalgia.Even if I was part of the charedi or ultra-Orthodox community, I would see something wrong with straightening my hair to fit in and a culture that glorifies only shiny, straight hair as beautiful. I have seen many African-American women who wear sheitels and that it their choice but it will not be mine.

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  9. Did you notice that the white portions of that hat I recommended you is made from the ground chalk excrement from lizards? I think that adds to the statement, don’t you? It would give you some conversation starters.. “Excuse me mam but this cover happens to have authentic lizard excrement paint on it.”

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  10. Boy I just <>love it<> when people drop criticisms on people's blogs — then don't even have the decency to let anyone know who they are {sucks teeth & rolls eyes}.I like Jewish weddings; and wrecking havoc on playing Jewish geography. I give your props for rocking the Rastafarian hat. Sounds like something I would do; except for my dad is a Rastafarian…so it may appear as if I'm going of the derech. Maybe an Indian sari with a sash draped over my head?{Sigh} If I ever get married…bezrat Hashem…things to think about!

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  11. “Jewish geography where everyone tries to figure out how they are connected to each other visa vie the Orthodox Jewish world. But a convert is not connected….. “Sorry to let you know this happens in other Jewish streams as well..I live in the “conservative” world. Although I don’t have the head covering issue all the rest is the same. I have no common personal history, and lets not go to the scioecconomic issues. no camp, no day camp, no Yeshiva no… no… no… I didn’t do it, I didn’t experience it..and yes I am Jewish and then when the conversation goes there I want to say out loud my grandmother, Santa Marie Spallachi Zampa came from Marche, Italy do you know it?

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  12. Dunking Rachel, hmm, I think I might steal that line from you and substitute my grandmother’s name. It might work. I H-A-T-E Jewish geography. I’m sorry. Even if I could play the game, I just don’t understand the point of it. I don’t care who you know, I want to know YOU.

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  13. I always win at the Jewish geography game. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I grew up in Coney Island, went to public school in Brighton Beach and Bensonhurst. I went to Mark Twain. I hate the Yankees and still lament the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers. People get confused or Brooklynites give me geography cred. Brooklynites love other Brooklynites I guess.

    Game, set, match!

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