Their faces shine, eyes marked with a dark depth, their strength of character hitting me in the first moment.
I come hoping to bond.
I stretch out my hand. “Hi, I’m Rivka,” I say, but the Hebrew name gets stuck on my tongue and feels contrived, fake, in sharp contrast to their normal, English, secular names.
My mind rewinds back to my definitive decision six years ago to switch over from my own secular name, but before I engage in a jittery internal wrestle of self doubt, I tell myself it really doesn’t matter anyway.
Because while I said, “Hi, I’m Rivka,” all we heard was, “Hi, I’m wearing a tiechel.”
My eye travels to their hairline, even though it doesn’t mean to, and it doesn’t mean anything, and I can tell that it’s not one of those amazing wigs that looks just like real hair, and also, with the pants they are wearing, a religious wig wouldn’t match up to their denominational uniform.
But I look at the hairlines anyways, instinctively, and then quickly regret it, looking back into their eyes, trying a little too hard to smile and looking a little too closely, as if saying “I was not checking to see if you cover your hair, and even if I did, I don’t think it means anything, and I don’t know you at all, and you don’t know me. I’m super cool!”
I’m pretty sure I see fear in their eyes.
I smile brighter, but their arms hold themselves even more rigidly at their sides as they respond to me, as if guarding themselves at any moment from me hoisting kabbalistic jargon on them, and persuading them in the confused pressurized atmosphere to sign up for another mitzvah.
Again, I want to plead, “No, no, no, that ain’t me, babe,” but I can’t, because they never actually said anything, and this is all hearsay.
I try, proactively, to “look for evidence”: Are they really judging me as judging them?
Maybe, a long time ago, two lifetimes ago, I would have made more superiority claims over them and seen myself as a missionary, sent to bring them closer to my light, my truth, the truth of truths. I would have downsized any of their ideas to my mountain of certainty, their thoughts remaining in my eyes as cute, little, child-like offerings, as I spooned on the real gravy, the real fruit, and led them to the real Promised Land.
I remember coming home from Israel after my first seminary summer, proudly sporting shirts to my elbows, feeling that this amount of sleeve covering exemplified all of the Truth I had hidden inside of me, and I pitied those whose shorter sleeved fabric indicated they were quite far away indeed.
But then my father, without a kippah on his head, made a comment to me one day, quoting one of the prophets, or Hillel, someone I had forgotten and misconstrued, and the humility of the moment found my squashed religious pride wallowing on the floor in shame. How dare I think I know more than him, more than anyone, just because of what I wore? How dare I think my mission is simply to teach others, and not to learn as much from everyone as possible?
Every person is a radiation. Every person is a deep wellspring of untapped knowledge.
I know nothing about you.
I’d rather spend my time hearing about your life than chanting ad nauseam about the small, theological thorns that separate us.
I know I cover my hair. I don’t know if that scares you. I don’t know if that disgusts you.
All I’m asking is for the benefit of the doubt, to believe that I’m not trying to make you Orthodox, that I wouldn’t want to impose my belief systems on you for the world.
Trust me that I won’t go home and write in my notebook how proud I am of converting you today, or getting you “on the path”. I promise, I won’t. I promise, I don’t think like that.
And maybe, over time, you and I will stop seeing my tiechel, and stop looking at our hairlines and the names we call ourselves.
Maybe then, I will see connection in your eyes and desire for collaboration.
Maybe then, you will trust me when I say that your greatness and beauty inspires me, and I want to know more.