In Williamsburg, I’m Not A Jew

It’s one in the morning and I’m standing alone on a dark street in Brooklyn.  My Airbnb hostess flaked and I have nowhere to be for the next hour. I’m not familiar with the neighborhood I’m in, but I know it’s far from the Jewish section of Crown Heights where I began the night.

Suddenly there’s a low rumble of thunder and the clouds open up.  I remember that I left my umbrella at Hevria House. My uncovered hair drips water down onto my white shirt and I hold my arms close to my body and shiver.

Someone approaches. They’re wearing a dark hoodie and moving quickly.  I can’t tell their age or race or anything really. But, their tall stature and heavy steps indicate that they’re probably male.

My heart beats faster and I pull my arms closer to my chest, wondering if I should start walking in the opposite direction or stay where I am. I remember reading an article once about how women have to act like prey and I think that’s exactly how I feel now.  Like a frightened rabbit waiting to be devoured. Inhuman.

The man is getting closer and closer and I decide that moving away now would make me look weak, like a victim.   I lift my head up, find the man’s eyes and smile. He smiles back, wishes me a good night and continues on to wherever he is going.

I feel safe, seen, human.

The next day I walk through Williamsburg on my way to the train.  The sun is shining. Men in enormous black hats are walking together, chatting in Yiddish or swiping through their phones.  Women in long skirts and covered hair push strollers. Little girls in black and white checkered uniforms parade along in giggling clusters.

There is beauty in this picture. The kind of beauty that I have always felt just outside of.

Growing up without other Jews around, I understood that there was a whole Jewish world out there somewhere.  A world I’d get glimpses of when we visited Brooklyn on the High Holy Days.

Back then, I’d watch in wonder as the crowds of men and women weaved through the streets in their black hats and long skirts, slipping into apartment buildings that contained mysteries I didn’t understand.  

I’d heard that they ate differently than we did, that they observed lists of complicated rules and prayed many times a day. In my mind they were the kind of Jews I should aspire to be. The holy ones. And yet, my mom insisted, we were just as holy as they were, just as Jewish.

Standing on Marcy Avenue, I don’t feel Jewish.  I feel like an intruder standing outside of a locked home, peering into the window.

I swivel the Magen David charm on my necklace like a key and wonder if anyone notices.

It’s getting later and I need to catch a train quickly or I won’t be in time for my daughter when she comes home from school.  But, I’ve gotten a bit turned around, unsure of which street to turn on.

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My eyes search for a friendly face to help me find my way.

Men abruptly jerk their heads to the ground when I look in their direction, women scowl, little girls look me up and down from my sleeveless shirt to my red and brown striped pants and whisper words I don’t understand to their classmates. A teenage boy with a wispy ginger beard looks at me with wide eyes, then storms across the street, narrowly missing being hit by a car.

Despite the heat, I reach in my bag for a sweater to cover my shoulders, hoping it will make me less noticeable.  It doesn’t. I am both invisible and glowing neon red, like a late night strip club.

I feel naked, dirty, treif.

A young woman with eyes the color of the sea walks alone.  She turns towards me and her lips move slightly. For a moment I wonder if she’s going to smile or say hello. My heart beats faster. Suddenly her approval feels like the most important thing in the world. A window, a doorway, validation that, despite my uncovered hair and pants, I too am a Jew. I too, am human.

I should have waited, given her a chance to make her decision. But I am too eager for connection. I look straight at her and give her a wide smile. Her sea green eyes turn dark, shutting me out. She turns a corner and walks away, leaving me alone again in a sea of black hats.

A strange feeling of panic overtakes me and I start walking faster.

It’s silly to feel unsafe, I tell myself. These are religious people and it’s the middle of the day. Yes, it’s a little uncomfortable but there is nothing to be worried about.

My pant leg catches on a bench and I miss a step and have to grab onto a tree to keep from falling. A mother pushing a stroller weaves around me. I wonder if someone would help me if I fell? If I screamed for help? If they noticed the Star of David necklace I am wearing?

Finally I reach the train station and squeeze into a seat between two elderly women. Both wear long skirts and tichels. I hold my body tensely, careful not to touch either of their knees. I realize I’ve been holding my breath.

The woman to my right points to my necklace.

“That’s a pretty Star.”

I look back at her and she is smiling and I start smiling and, for the first time that day, I feel like a human. I feel like a Jew.