I Am Chaya, And I Am The Proud Owner Of Three Brown Wigs

I showed up at shul on Shavuot three years ago wearing a long pleated skirt and a floral cardigan sweater—supremely grandma-like. Not like my own grandmothers, who on the maternal side preferred large sterling silver statement jewelry and on the paternal side preferred black or beige slacks with black or beige silk shirts. My maternal grandmother was never without a glossy manicure, and my paternal grandmother was never without a tube of Revlon lipstick. I point this out because I am not sure where I got the idea that dressing like a Chassidic lady is grandma-like. Neither one of my grandmothers would have dared go out wearing a long white pleated skirt and a pastel floral cardigan. 

Adding to the error in my labeling, in religious Jewish communities I have encountered forty-year-old grandmothers. (It gives a whole new meaning to “teen mother”.) I once met a forty-five-year-old woman in Beitar who was the mother of seventeen children, and already a grandmother for several years. She did not look anything like the grandmothers of my childhood picture books, who in turn looked nothing like my actual grandmothers. Though she was forty-five, she was wizened yet possibly still fertile, once again breaking all picture book-perpetuated ideas that grandmothers have long gray hair, wear aprons, and smell like lavender. 

The bottom line of going into all this is that you can’t generalize, and you can’t judge a record by its sleeve. The other bottom line of going into all this is that I was the last person who anyone would have expected to marry a hard-core Lubavitcher and settle down in Crown Heights.  On the day at shul when I was wearing the questionably-grandma-like outfit, I ran into a gal whom I had spent some time with in Israel. She looked at me quizzically. She said, “Wow. You’re really doing this.” 

I said, “Nobody thought I would get married and live here.”

She said, “No, not really.”

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I can’t actually believe sometimes that I am living this life. I cannot believe that I am still here, and have committed to live here until either Moshiach comes or my husband retires. My inclination everywhere I have ever lived was to get out. I spent my teenage years wanting to get out of the medium-sized town where I grew up, and it is no exaggeration to say that my high school graduation day was like being released from prison. I left college after the first year to go “find myself” (in other words to be a ski bum) and then maintained a touch-and-go relationship with the rural town in Colorado where I had gone for the next few years. I transferred to a cheaper and less prestigious college where there were “more different kinds of people” and pursued burning the candle at both ends—three o’clock in the morning was a reliable time for me to be awake during those years, which continued through my twenties until I made Aliyah and went to work in Israeli tech and the long days behind the computer knocked me out and I had to sleep at night.

I have never been out dancing in New York City. I have never stayed out all night doing anything other than reading Tehillim at an all-night women’s Tehillim group that I went to this past Purim night in Queens. I have declined pot from Jamaicans. I have never once eaten a bowl of Pho in this city, nor worn jeans in Brooklyn, nor been to a live-music venue in this borough (though once I went to see some Jewish music in Manhattan). I am (surprisingly) not a member of the co-op, and I no longer compost. I care what people think of me and I want to be invisible. I keep my cards close to my chest and share information with people who are not reasonably-close friends on a strictly need-to-know basis. I am now the proud owner of three brown wigs.

There are two things that keep me in Crown Heights, and that keep me on track. One is my husband, who is irreplaceable and the best friend I have ever had. The other is the fact that you can’t keep a Jew away from Torah, and even if I fled to the Himalayas I would end up at Chabad of Katmandu eating frozen schnitzel and speaking broken Hebrew. 

Clearly, though, I am not sure that I have mastered this life, which is what I plan to write about on Hevria, Elad’s latest venture. My friend Sadie said, “Everyone thinks she is holding in the most balanced place.” Meaning: Every Jew thinks she’s neither an extremist nor a slacker, that her version of Judaism is the right one. Is it? Where do we even get license to make exceptions for ourselves in some areas and to be stringent in others? How do subjectivity, self-interest, and the desire not to be rejected inform what, when, and how we attempt to create a dwelling place for G-d on this dark/hostile/colorful/fake-yet-real/bananas planet? 

I find myself just getting through the days, as I am sure many of you also do, not particularly addressing those kind of questions. That’s what writing and reading are for, though. I’m looking forward to exploring these kind of themes in a forum where the assumption is that the Torah was given to Moshe at Sinai. I also am grateful to be included as a writer on this site, since Elad, Rivka, Yocheved, Sarah Zadok, Matthue, and Chaya L. are some of my favorite human beings.  Onward, Yidlach.