Why do women hate me when I knit?
And why don’t men?
Israeli women and men.
Difficult questions to answer. Nevertheless, we will. But first, I ought to introduce myself as something more than Philip Gold’s wife, filling in on his blog for a couple weeks while he crashes on manuscripts and argues with literary agents, book editors and, most frustrating of all, “the marketing people” back in the United States.
My name is Erin Solaro.
Now, Erin is not a Jewish name. Israelis often confuse it with “Aaron” and I occasionally get mail addressed to Solaro, Aaron. Israelis also have trouble pronouncing it, and if I had a shekel for every time I’ve been called “Ereeeen,” I could start my own knitting business or, less ambitiously, political party.
I’m not Halakhically Jewish. Far from it. As a hyper-cynical adolescent, I got myself run out of both Baptist and Catholic Christianity classes, and until I made Aliyah in 2010 with my Halakhically Kosher husband, I’d never lived among Jews. Muslims, yes. Six months in Kuala Lumpur while my college professor mother guest-taught at the University of Malaysia. Stints in Iraq and Afghanistan as a journalist/author embedded with combat units, studying American women at war. Even a few days in Kuwait and Dubai.
But I’ve always been fascinated by Judaism, Jewishness and Israel. I took Jewish history in college, attended seders, had Israeli friends. Even married a Jew. All save the last of these, perplexed me. Then I discovered the nature of my fascination. Family scandal. Numerous generations back, our ancestors the Kleins had come over from Germany and subsequently became Christians.
But as we say in the dog-training business (I used to be a professional dog trainer), “You can’t breed it out of ‘em.”
So here I am.
First stop after clearing Ben-Gurion and settling into the merkaz klita: Ulpan. And there I made a fascinating discovery. The Hebrew masculine word, chacham, means “wise man” and usually refers to a scholarly type, steeped in the sacred texts and commentaries. The feminine, chachama, means both “wise woman” and “craftswoman.”
How wise I am is not for me to say. But I’m definitely a craftswoman. And something more. Historically, at least until Judaism took to putting the kabosh on inter-marriage, non-Jewish women coming into the tribe were important transmitters of the crafts of other cultures. I can relate to that.
I knit. I’m an extreme knitter and do very complex work. I also wear what I knit. And therein, perhaps, lies the problem. It’s not just an Israeli thing. Back in the States, I drew my share of frowns, opprobrium and scornful commentary. And it got me to wondering. What was it about skilled handicrafts, done by amateurs, that bothered people so?
I first encountered the local hostility, courtesy of Egged. After finishing Ulpan and moving to more permanent digs, I took a job that required major commuting. Sitting alone, knitting, sometimes wearing my own products, I was self-contained. That troubled women. The younger ones sneered, then ostentatiously took up with their techo-gadgets. Still, they kept looking at me, often furtively. Perhaps they read my mind. When this commute is over, I’ll be that much closer to yet another beautiful garment, to wear or to give to someone I care about. You’re playing some idiot game. What will you have to show? Or perhaps they didn’t need telepathy, Perhaps they were thinking it themselves, but refused to access the implications.
Some of the younger women, and many of the older, amused themselves by screaming into their cell phones. Few of the conversations seemed necessary; many, especially those conducted in frantic serial, appeared just one more way to pass the time. Same question. What will you have to show when it’s over? Same answer. Nothing. Ultra-Orthodox women glared angrily. Very occasionally, a woman who knitted would strike up a conversation. Invariably, it ended with the old, I could never do that. I learned not to respond with encouragement, or to thank her for a statement that, while couched as a compliment, had far deeper and perhaps uglier aspects.
Astonishing how something like a lace shawl in-progress could bring women to bare their souls, perhaps not always voluntarily, and rarely with grace.
Not so, the men. Why didn’t they scorn me and my work? Knitting, after all, is a traditional feminine activity and Israeli men pride themselves on their flaunting, not to say preposterous, machismo. Perhaps they were curious because, approaching fifty, I’m still physically fit and strong, the very antithesis of the archetypal knitter.
Could it be that Israeli men, despite their rampaging sexism, don’t really think that highly of women who look like They Got It All at The Mall?
In the beginning, knitting provided a useful physical barrier between me and potential male aggressions and ineptitudes. But a few of the men who crossed that barrier were genuinely interested in what I was doing. Some were fascinated by the complexities. One tough, burly Border Police sergeant wanted to learn how to read a pattern chart. One commute, I had a pleasant conversation with two Arab men who wondered about the salability of my products. I explained that, without a fancy designer label, I couldn’t even command minimum wage for my work. They cheerily suggested that I get myself some counterfeit labels, which they claimed were readily available.
I decided to pass on that one. But the cumulating experiences and the suspicions they engendered, stayed with me. And I reached the obvious conclusion. The hostility wasn’t about me. It was about them.
Next: The Personal Is Political . . . and Also Cosmic