“Oh, you’re an Orthodox Jew? That’s so interesting…”
That either means:
On some level, I’ve defied their perception of what an Orthodox Jew should look/talk/act/dress/think like. And they’re confused.
On some level, I’ve defied their perception of what an Orthodox Jew should look/talk/act/dress/think like. And they’re pleased.
I have to admit, I’ve fallen into this trap so many times. Whether as a young girl in oh-so-vanilla Minnesota (and I’m not just talking snow), holding my own in conversations of art, philosophy and politics with seasoned travelers, hanging with all sorts of Israelis in some cafe in Tel Aviv, or as the token Orthodox Jew in my graduate class at a Catholic university– or anywhere else — I often felt like I had something to prove.
That yes, as an Orthodox Jew I could be worldly. Well read. Fun. Open-minded. And even (gasp) — cool.
That as an Observant woman, I could still be carefree. Opinionated. Ambitious. And even (gasp) — progressive.
With my chameleon powers, I could rock that Hasid/Hipster dichotomy so well. I could make being a hasid, hip.
My Dad used to tell me about his childhood in Iran. How he was one of the very few Jews at his school, tormented by his peers. How he was the only Jew he knew of in his infantry unit in the Iranian Army.
“No matter what, I never forgot I was a Jew… They wouldn’t let me.”
For generations, this served to protect us. The collective memory of our surrounding cultures forced us to remain intact as a community. We could never forget that we were different – even if we tried.
Yet how many Jews still tried to blend in, still tried to make those that remembered who we are, forget?
Standing out, blending in – both a response to oppression from without.
It’s time to release those restraints.
To just be.
Lately, there’s this phenomena of pointing out every time an Orthodox Jew does something notable. (Remember thoseweirdly talented girls? How about the#ninjarabbi?)
A sort of ‘Celebrities, They’re Just Like Us’ but for Orthodox Jews.
And frankly, it irks me.
Our identity is not an agenda.
For as hard as we try to break the stereotypes of those who underestimate or misunderstand us — somehow, we reinforce them.
In trying to celebrate our gifts, we become apologetic.
In trying to make a kiddush Hashem, we get lost in trying to prove our worth.
Because every time we bring attention to another Orthodox Jew who is successful or mensch’lich or creative or philanthropic or talented or normal we are insinuating that this is not the norm– that indeed, Orthodox Jews have the deck stacked against them. That in most cases, we do not measure up to your Everyman. That somehow, being Observant makes being productive, nuanced, or accomplished that much harder – that much rarer.
Is that really the case?
Isn’t that the same thing as marveling every time someone who isn’t Observant has Jewish values? (I mean, what are the odds?!) Or an Atheist is a moral, upright, honest person? (I mean, how does that happen?!)
People are kind. People are smart. People are courageous. People are hardworking, are dreamers, are lovers and makers and gloriously tumbling through life as they leave their unique mark.