Sunday, April 11, 2010
One such incident occurred pretty soon into my visit. I arrived wearing dress pants and a blue dress shirt, which I planned on wearing when yom tov started. While I was well aware that a blue shirt is not the accepted style in their community, I was pretty sure that they'd find it to still be respectful enough that it wouldn't pose a problem. And it didn't, at least for the adults. But the kids... they just didn't know how to handle it! Here's how the conversation went as yom tov was approaching, and they were hanging out with me:
Kids (aged 8 - 10): When are you going to get dressed for yuntif?
Me: I am dressed.
Kids: Very funny!
Me (laughing at their incredulity): Seriously, this is what I'm going to wear.
Kid: Stop it. I know you're not serious. You're not going to wear a blue shirt to shul.
Me: Ok, you don't have to believe me if you don't want to. It doesn't really matter.
Kids: But, but... how could you...? It's a blue shirt…!
What could I possibly say to help them understand? To their minds, it was just totally inconceivable that someone would do something so outrageous as wearing a blue shirt on shabbos. Impossible! It reminded me of the incident when I was still frum where my Israeli 8-year-old nephew saw me for the first time wearing a kipa sruga (a knitted yarmulke, of the style that are typically worn by those affiliated with the Religious-Zionist community). His reaction? "Why would you wear that? Rak chilonim lovshim kipot k'eilu!" ("Only non-religious people wear those kinds of yarmulkes!")
(By the way, the next day, my cousin told me that her 7-year-old wanted to wear a blue shirt too. It's amazing what a corrupting influence I am!)
Another incident: I was sitting in the kitchen, and my uncle was about to have a bite of some pesach cake. He turned to his wife and asked her if he should make a mezonos or shahakol before eating it. (On pesach, some baked goods are made with ingredients that require a shehakol bracha, so the baker (my aunt) would know what bracha it required). She thought for a moment, and then replied, "I'm not sure. I can't remember how I made that one." My uncle immediately declared, "You don't know? Then how can it be eaten?! We have to throw it out!"
As soon as he said that, my aunt seemed to have a very sudden recollection of what ingredients went into the cake, so the crisis was averted, but I was just struck how incredibly absurd his reaction was. To be honest, I'm not really sure how serious he was when suggesting that it be trashed, since it really doesn't take much halachic imagination to figure out ways to eat an item even when you aren't sure what bracha to make on it (e.g. have it after motzi, have it 'in mind' when making a mezonos and shehakol on something else, or he even could have simply asked her to check her recipe!), but just hearing his first instinctive response to some tiny halachic quandary to be such an extreme black-and-white overreaction really highlighted for me the craziness of how halacha makes some people see the world.
Another moment of contrast: At dinner, during some point in the conversation I was telling them about some of my experiences at school, and some of the friends I've made there. I mentioned how I got to know some Iranian students, and how interesting it was to hear their perspectives on current events, and their interaction with American society. When I remarked how I was surprised to learn that they, as loyal Iranians, still find Ahmadinejad to be an absolute nutjob, I was quite amazed when my relatives nodded in agreement. "Of course!" they responded. Wow, I thought to myself. That's not the reaction I was expecting. Have my chareidi relatives really developed the subtlety to not paint all Muslims with the same brush? "Of course," my uncle explained. "He's made life terrible for the Jews there. They can't stand him!"
I was unsure how to respond to his remark, momentarily confused by what he meant, but then it dawned on me what had just transpired: When I spoke about befriending Iranian students, they had automatically assumed that I was talking about Iranian Jews! Realizing this, I just sat there in utter disbelief at what I was hearing. My family were all frum professionals, some of them even having attended college (one even a doctorate), and most having worked in the secular world for decades. How in the world does someone who has all those years of interaction, however tangential it may be to their primary frum life, maintain such a narrow ethnocentric worldview?! Honestly, I was just flabbergasted.
At another point, the inevitable political topic arose, and like every other situation where I've heard chareidim comment on current events, the right-wing tirade against how Obama is such a terrible person, a socialist who is destroying the country, how he's overtaxing them and giving away their money to the poor shvartzes on welfare, etc., blah, blah, was expressed. This wasn't surprising to me at all, but what was amazing was the total lack of awareness of how hypocritical they were in their position. In other conversations, these same relatives had absolutely no qualms expressing exactly the opposite opinion when it came to how the Israeli government is so terrible for always trying to cut back on the welfare allowances that they give chareidi families. I know, it's totally not the same thing at all.
I'm very appreciative of my family. They're all very kind and wonderful, and I'm most grateful that, for the most part, they've never at any time given me a hard time about my decision to stop being frum. But I never cease to be reminded that no matter how 'normal' and accepting a chareidi person is, there will always be a vast and seemingly insurmountable gulf between the worldview of the committed chareidi and my own personal outlook on the world.
Photo Credit: Flickr user barb
If you appreciate this blog, please support it by checking out some of the sponsors, or if you'd like to more concretely demonstrate your love, feel free to get me something from my wish list.