Julie Gray

Hatless in Israel

I made aliyah almost two years ago. And I converted to Judaism some 27 years ago (coming up on 28 years, actually). I am a fair, freckled, red headed woman with a distinctly Celtic looking face. It’s in me blood, I can’t help it, I just can’t then.

I have been the subject of some confusion for many years now. Or – I thought I was. When I converted,  I remember feeling VERY self conscious because I didn’t “look Jewish” – I felt like a pretender, a groupie, a fake. In retrospect, I think I was flattering myself that anybody else cared or even noticed the way I looked.

Over time, as I grew up some and set my self-consciousness aside, when a non-Jew looked at me with surprise and blurted out that I did not “look Jewish” (which happened way more often than you would imagine), instead of stuttering that I had converted, I would give them a Mona Lisa smile and say, “Really? What do Jews look like?”

It was a little bit mean, I admit it.

In my later years, I took to wearing long skirts and long sleeves – it protects me from the sun. I, like most of my family members, have a close and comfortable relationship with the dermatologist.

I noticed, when I first moved to Tel Aviv that I was getting stared at, now and again. I felt like I had a giant sign around my neck that said CAUTION: OLAH CHADASHA or something.

It’s just Israelis, a sabra friend said – we stare. Oh, okay. But it didn’t stop. Was I imagining? Was it my face? My bones? My fair skin? Mmmmm that didn’t really add up. Lots of Israelis are fair. What was it then? My imagination again?

One day my sabra friend was with me as I was again on the receiving end of some odd stares.

Oh wow, they ARE staring at you, he said, a bit gleefully.

WHY? I said – why? What am I doing wrong? 

He looked me up and down and nodded solemnly, something coming together in his mind. He slapped his forehead – it’s your long skirts and sleeves, he said. You look religious. But your head is not covered so it’s a little confusing. 

Ohhhhhh. I got it. It made sense.

No, no, I wanted to say – I cover my arms and legs to protect against UV rays! I’m not religious in the least but if I were, I’d most certainly hope I could pull off one of those colorful India.Arie-type head coverings I see some women wear. Alas, I cannot. In fact, I harbor a secret wish for somebody to show me how that is done, I’ll be honest. And I like the idea of a daily reminder of the presence of Hashem. I remind myself in other ways though.

Last week, as the geshem poured down on all of us and the air cooled, I put on a snug fitting cap and tucked my hair up. There. That would help stave off the cold. I walked down the street in my long skirts and saw my reflection in some glass. I did a double-take.

I looked – I looked religious.

I tried it on for a few blocks, smiling politely, feeling – strange. How did it feel now, I asked myself, to have a signifier, even an inadvertent one, that I was most definitely a Jewish woman?

It felt weird. Not wrong or bad, just odd. I am a Jewish woman. But like a lot of other Israeli women, I don’t cover my head. I do not share the way I observe Judaism outwardly. Maybe I should. I don’t know.

Then I realized it. Nobody was really looking at me. I was the one having this silent battle within myself of what my Jewish identity is – and isn’t.

It’s time for me to just own who I am. I’m a red headed, American olah who burns easily, smiles readily and who wears a hat to keep me warm. 

About the Author
Writer, editor and content creator Julie Gray lives in Northern Israel with her life partner, Gidon Lev. Let's Make Things Better, co-authored by Gidon and Julie will be available in Fall 2024 (Hachette/Pan MacMillan).