My Disenchantment With Jewish Labeling

So what’s her story?
Does she daven every day?
How many hours a week does she learn?
Which shul does she attend?
How are her middot?
Does she wear skirts or pants?
Is she planning on covering her hair?
Does she want to make Aliyah?

These questions are typical to ask when considering a partner in the Jewish dating scene. As a young Jewish girl, these questions inevitably construct my reality as I attempt to form an identity for which others will understand me.

For the most part, it makes sense to me. You want to know that the person you will marry has similar values to yourself so you can build a home together. But it also means you have to know all the answers, and you have to recognize that the decisions you make may limit the number of people you could be with.

Though I don’t see it as a reflection of my religious values, I often get asked whether I wear pants or not as a determinant factor before a setup. I do on the weekends, and I’ve come to recognize how my choice limits me, but I also know the guy that I want wouldn’t ask that question to begin with. Still, I think about how every decision I make for myself, no matter how personal, becomes an answer to somebody else’s question when it comes to dating me. It’s not ideal, because I feel watched in my every step and move, but I’m used to it by now. 

 This dating culture wasn’t one I had always known. But as I’ve grown and observed dating in New York, I’ve become aware of the social constructs that follow. These constructs have developed over time from social and cultural norms. Some things change, but the general culture stays the same, and these questions always follow.

I know I don’t have control to make changes to the system; I merrily discovered their contribution to normative culture. So why do I write? I write to create community, to show my reality, make sense of it, and help others feel less alone. Every voice counts and I admit, though somewhat naively, that I hope to ignite hope for a better world with mine. 

I grew up in Houston, Texas where the Jewish Modern Orthodox culture was laid back, supportive, and open. I went to a pluralistic high school filled with Jews of different backgrounds. I had Conservative friends, Orthodox friends, and everything in between. My peers and I rarely judged each other’s religious differences. Many of our parents were either baal teshuvas or had immigrated from other countries so we all came with our own sets of minhagim we followed. I didn’t keep all halachot so stringently growing up, but I never questioned the standards I upheld and the pride and confidence I felt in my religious identity. 

When I decided to attend Stern College for Women, little did I know what a shock I was going to be in for. As I walked down 34th street to the dorms I’d live in for four years of my young adult life, I looked up at all the buildings and fell in love with my idea of what I came to call my the “land of the free”. I quickly made a group of friends to explore New York City with and to discover our freedom together. 

Yeshiva University is a unique place in that it is the college with the most Jewish stereotypes, as it is a Jewish college. People often stereotype Stern College to be a homogenous population of Jews, mostly leaning to the right of Modern-Orthodoxy, when in reality the population is actually quite diverse with a wide range of religious observance across the whole spectrum of Jewish practices. But Stern’s diversity does not equate to openness and I soon learned how it was nowhere near as religiously tolerant as my experience back in Texas. 

After I arrived, I started to feel like my religious background was illegitimate. Back in Houston, I ate dairy out, kept Shabbat, dressed however I pleased, and still felt that the culture I was raised in considered me religiously admissible. But at Stern, the culture was less so, and I suddenly found myself way on the left of the spectrum of religious observance, having not gone to Israel, and not owning the same black skirt as everyone else.

These differences would’ve been fine if I had made more friends that were different from me, but everyone seemed to stick to their little bubbles. I felt like my peers made assumptions about me as a person, based on my adherence to halacha. I did find some friends similar to me, but I still felt overwhelmed by the feeling that I was being marginalized and judged for some of my choices. It was uncomfortable for me to watch my perception of myself dissipate, to be seen as someone who lacks certain morals because I ate avocado toast in non-kosher restaurants or shorts in the summer. I felt like a runt, and no matter how hard I tried, I would always be behind. 

I wish I could say that over time, I felt more accepted for my differences. But the pervasive culture at Stern wasn’t neutral. I felt as though there was one “right” way to be, and if you weren’t it, something was definitely wrong with you. Whether it was the stares my friend group received from girls in the elevator on our way out on Thursday nights or the scowls I was so used to hearing when I chose to wear pants to class in the cold winter, it was difficult to escape the feeling of being judged. I felt that we were all so similar with our Jewish upbringings, yet still this hostility was ever-present.

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In the context of a secular college, maybe we would’ve banded together as Jews, but in such a big pool, there was a lot more room for divides between girls. I started to wonder whether we were measured by our observance from left to right or was it a tainted moral compass equating to religiosity, measuring us from top to bottom, good or bad? 

During my junior year, my friends and I noticed how we were being perceived by others. We partied on the weekends and people treated us differently because of its negative stigma. People would often ask us (mainly men, even condescendingly at times), “Oh what’s happening tonight? Something wild I bet?” or “C’mon’ you really weren’t at the party? You guys never miss them!”

One Shabbat, my friends and I sat on a couch discussing the matter. Sure, partying was something we did, we agreed, but it wasn’t fair that it was beginning to define us completely. Later, I looked at my Facebook photos and noticed how most of them were of me and my friends out in bars on the weekends, and I realized how my “social media persona” was only further feeding the stereotype I was trying to escape. I realized I had been naive about how my posts might reflect other’s assumptions about me and I chose to take responsibility for my actions. 

Through my senior year, aspects of my personal and inner life that made me unhappy led me to make some changes in how I chose to dress, the activities I partook in, and the people I surrounded myself by. I was an RA and the head of a magazine and developed new religious standards for myself. I loved praying more, keeping kosher, dressing more modestly, and learning more Torah. It also felt nice to finally feel like I fit in with my peers, being that I had paid the ticket to do so. Sometimes I would feel constrained, but I ignored it because I wanted to create an impact on campus, and I knew that the only way to do so, would be to be more like everyone else, so I could be seen as more relatable and be able to create real positive change on campus. But sometimes, late at night, weeks before graduation, I’d lie awake wondering if what I wanted all along was to finally feel legitimate? I was so entrenched in the system that I couldn’t even differentiate the decisions I was making on behalf of myself or just to please those around me. Maybe Stern “cracked” me and I was finally doing what everyone thought I should be doing. 

After I graduated, I learned that I was not alone in feeling how my “not religious” box limited me. I met others that showed me that I was not alone in these feelings. There was a girl I met that felt stuck in her “nice and smiley MMY girl” box which limited her to only doing what she deemed as “safe” activities and a boy that was stuck in his “son of a Rabbi” box, but deeply struggled with what that label meant and how it reflected on who he was supposed to be versus who he really was. Though my peers were frustrated by the system, the system controlled them nonetheless. They weren’t happy, yet they too seemed to feel that it was an unchangeable reality. 

I don’t like labels; I believe I’ve made that obvious by this point. It taints my enthusiasm towards my Judaism and creates uncomfortable and rigid boxes of conformity. But it also fails to address the idiosyncrasies within every human being. Walt Whitman explains this sentiment in his famous “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Humans are filled with contradictions and each decision made is influenced by experiences and self-discovery. Sometimes our actions don’t make sense. But the world is not black and white and these questions try to make it that way and squeeze the color out of our world. They limit a discourse of the self that is so prevalent to our religion to begin with. 

What would a world be like without this system? Perhaps each person could explore themselves more comfortably and feel less restricted to pursue new modes of thought or hobbies. We should stress humanity over religion. Above religion, it is good to be curious and open-hearted because it allows one individual to truly understand another on a personal level. But I can’t say I’m perfect either. I’ve boxed people in that I could’ve connected with. How I wish I could say I never judge books by their covers or people for their clothes. I’m ashamed because I know I’ve made assumptions too. It’s hard to be perfect, but we can all work harder to be better, especially if we’d like to be granted the same freedom when we ourselves wish to make changes. 

We are a sum of all of our life experiences, and not just one. Everyone at some point, has acted a little hypocritical, but even that doesn’t justify someone else calling them one, because your actions don’t define who you are in your entirety. Even though I struggled with these conflicts about my identity for my four years in college, I still felt lucky that I was able to experience college at a Jewish university because I was forced to ask myself many important questions and deeply consider my religious choices. The journey of self-defining religiously was one of the most fulfilling aspects of my attending Stern College.

Every person you meet can offer you something new. Everyone has their own unique story, but they are all allowed to keep writing their own stories. In my senior year in college, I saw students come in as freshmen and I watched them learn the same things I did about the divides between students. Now it seems all too simple, but I wish I could’ve embodied this ideal sooner. I also wish we could end the system but I know it takes more than one to end a normative culture. I dream of when the norm will become more nuanced and less marginalizing than these dating questions. I wish more of us could see past them and look deeper into people’s souls. If we could allow for that, more people in this world would be seen for the good that they do and the good in people would be easier for others to see.