It’s a humid summer day, and I’m walking down the street a few blocks away from the Hasidic community where I now reside. I’m tired, so is my daughter, and we both look forward to going home and blasting the air conditioning.
A religious Jewish woman approaches, and I step aside so as not to bump straight into her. After I let her pass, she turns around to me and says, “Excuse me.”
I assume she’s just being polite, so I nod slightly. But she has something she wants to say, and she makes sure that I will hear it.
“You don’t belong in this neighborhood dressed like that,” she says loudly.
“Excuse me?” I turn around, stunned. I must have misunderstood.
“You don’t belong here!” she repeats.
I grab my daughter’s hand and walk away as fast as I possibly can. The woman stares after me, probably unaware and definitely not concerned with the profound effect her few words had on me.
Growing up in an ultra-Orthodox community, I always knew I was different. I was inquisitive, and spent a lot of time thinking. In the all-girls school I attended, I inquired about everything I was taught. My teachers didn’t always appreciate my frank, candid questions, especially when they didn’t quite have the answers.
I remember learning about Abraham’s circumcision as a young girl. My teacher was explaining to us how Abraham was in excruciating pain, having just been circumcised at the age of 99 years old. I had always known that babies cry at their bris, but I never knew why. All I knew is that when I attended my brothers’ and cousins’ bris, there were bagels and lox and cream cheese and danishes, and a newborn baby boy on a white, decorative pillowcase. No one had ever explained to me why every time, without fail, the baby’s piercing screams after the rabbi finished blessing him were heard throughout the entire synagogue.
Perhaps this was my chance to find out.
I raised my hand and asked my teacher, “What’s a bris?”
My classmates snickered and laughed and my teacher looked uncomfortable. I didn’t understand why the girls were laughing, and I wanted to know what was so funny. But my teacher never answered. She just changed the subject and that was that.
With time, I learned when to ask questions and when not to, what was appropriate and what was taboo. But I also learned that here, in this place, I am not accepted the way I am, here in this school and in this community where questions go unanswered and where thinking is frowned upon.
But I desperately wanted to fit in, so I tried to make myself fit the mold. I learned how to shut my mouth when I wanted to scream, and figured out how to swallow the questions that I knew would raise eyebrows. I learned to write under a pen name, and I became an expert on how to inconspicuously change my clothes to more comfortable, flattering, and less modest outfits as soon as I got to the subway.
Later on when I got married, I kept a strictly kosher home, and I wore black when I went to shul on the High Holidays so that I didn’t stick out. When my daughter was born, there wasn’t even a question in my mind that she would later attend an ultra-Orthodox school, learning about the concepts in Judaism that I found, and still find, so beautiful: tradition, family, compassion, kindness, self-restraint.
But just when I thought that I finally fit into my new community, someplace I can start over with my own little family, I found myself unexpectedly separated and then divorced, and it was back to the community I grew up in, at least temporarily. Once again, I felt like a stranger who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everywhere around me, friends were getting married, having babies, building families – while my own family and the home I had built was falling apart. Once again, my colorful taste in fashion and my fondness for short skirts were a source of discontentment and conflict with my parents, just like it had been ten years ago when I was a young teenager.
It seemed as if, despite the passage of time and the change in my status from girl to wife to mother to single girl once again – nothing had changed. I still didn’t belong.
Now I walk down these streets, among the same people I went to school with, and every insecurity I ever had about fitting in is being reinforced and verbalized. You don’t belong here. You are different. You will never fit in.
And I think to myself: Twenty-something-year-old adults should have already found their place in this world, a group of people they belong to that is accepting of them. And yet, here I am, a twenty-something-year-old adult, being told by a stranger: You don’t belong here. You, with your long wig and your short skirt and your bright red nails. What are you even doing here?
I want to ask this woman: How exactly does one belong here? Does one stifle one’s opinions, focus on the external? Would it be enough if I were to cover my knees, my arms, my legs… my voice? What is it exactly that you’re so deathly afraid of? Do you fear that the moment we begin dressing for ourselves and not for the prevention of sinful male thoughts, our identities will be exposed along with our skin?
Here, in this place where my clothing and my thoughts and my beliefs are intolerable to the people I grew up with, I will never be accepted. I understand as much. But where do I belong then? Is it in the divorced community, where I am practically a baby compared to those who have three children, four, five, and years and years of marriage behind them? Is it in the singles world, where men and women my age socialize and date freely, without having to run home to a crying child? Is it in the formerly religious community, where Yom Kippur is just another workday and God and religion are concepts to laugh about?
Where is it exactly that I do belong?
But then I realize something, and the thought itself, after the initial waves of hurt and resentment and anger had lessened, actually makes me smile. The woman was right – I do not belong here, and I don’t want to belong here – here on this street next to this pious, covered woman, in this place where clothes matter more than people do, and where women are viewed as objects to hide and conceal behind a mechitzah and layers upon layers and innumerable, infinite rules.
God created me, the same way He created these people. This community, and this woman – I do not owe them any explanation. The only One I owe any explanation to is God Himself, and I firmly believe that, despite my long hair and the tightness of my skirt, He loves and accepts me unconditionally.
Why would I want to be accepted here if it means hiding who I really am? I can be a good Jew, a good person, and my essence, my being, has absolutely nothing to do with the way I look.
One day, I will be part of a place where a woman’s beauty is celebrated, and her questions hold value and her words have meaning. A place where my daughter can be accepted into an educational institution based on her thirst for knowledge and the kindness of her heart, and not what kind of tights her mother chooses to cover her legs with. But until that point in time, I am content just knowing that I am accepted by God. Right now – that’s the only thing that matters.