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by Susan Reimer-Torn
I'VE BEEN WARNED that the Orthodox lifestyle in which I was brought up — modern, enlightened, advocating secular education for all genders — has moved far to the right. An unexpected invitation to attend an Orthodox version of a bat mitsve in Philadelphia this past weekend was my opportunity to experience that shift. Agreeing to come was like accepting a dare: Surely I could spend two days with people who lived an exaggerated version of a traditional lifestyle I had rejected, with all their implied judgment of my choices, and emerge emotionally intact. Surely I must be past reactivity to their censure.
Packing for my two days away, I already feel challenged. I don’t want to hide who I am, but I did want to cover my ass and my décolleté enough to avoid scandal. I select flared skirts, longish sleeves, and some nod to the headcovering required of married women, tweaking items in my funky wardrobe to pass muster while still sounding a dissident note.
I’ve heard that these days Orthodox rabbis earn their retrograde stripes by the degree to which they are willing to demote, exclude, and marginalize women. The bat mitsve girl herself is granted no role whatsoever in the actual service. All she gets to do is give a little speech after Friday night dinner in a room without a Torah scroll or prayer book or ritual object in sight. One diminutive blonde woman, seemingly informed of my feminist views, lets me know: “We Orthodox women like it this way.”
Later she comes to tell me that her rabbi back in Queens won’t even let women eulogize loved ones at funerals. I check in: “Is that all right with you?” She tells me it is not, basing her objection on the difference between religious gathering where it is A-OK to exclude women and a social gathering where it is not. I venture to ask her if she does not see some logical progression between accepting inferior status in one domain and its extension to another, but she lets me know I’m off the mark.
An exchange over lunch the next day results in a stab of tenderness for, of all people, Donald Trump. A woman speaking from under the shadow of a broad brimmed black hat questions me: Did I know that even though they comprise only 2 or 3 percent of Republican votes, Jews contribute 25 percent of all the party’s campaign funds? No, I did not know. So how was it possible for that nervy Trump to walk right into Sheldon Adelson territory and tell the audience that he doesn’t want their money? It gets worse. When they asked the swaggering billionaire about Israel, he told them he thinks the Israeli government could try harder when it comes to the peace process. He even said that the status of Jerusalem might have to be reconsidered. She’s shaking with indignation and I’m savoring the moment. What does it mean when us-versus-them Jews get their comeuppance from the likes of this self-serving scoundrel?
I chuckle at another layer of irony. The gracious woman who is hosting me this weekend is a niece of Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, who converted none other than Ivanka Trump to Judaism to facilitate her marriage to a Kushner, thus not only forming an alliance between two outsized real estate giants but guaranteeing Mrs. Trump-Kushner a front row seat in his Orthodox Manhattan synagogue, where she now gets to model another designer hat every single week.
IT'S A FESTIVAL of the closing of the American Jewish mind. I’m treated to scattered remarks throughout the weekend about how we all need to be carrying guns, semi-automatic weapons don’t need to be outlawed, and Judaism cannot be expected to evolve. Even though Trump has not yet outraged the planet by declaring that no Moslems should be let in to the country, several in this crowd agree that Moslems should be made to carry special ID cards. When the small blonde asks me why it is that neither one of my past-30-year-old sons is married, I hear the unspoken: My choices have led to a dead end. I have forfeited my God-given opportunity to help perpetuate the Jewish people. Clearly, there’s no “be fruitful and multiply” nakhes for self-indulgent heretics like me.
On the drive home, I feel like sleeping it off. But NPR is broadcasting a program on compassion with Daniel Coleman making a good point. This expert in emotional intelligence confirms that we are all hard-wired to assure our own survival. In violent times, this gives rise to plenty of polarized, bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone Age responses. But more progressive people are also wired to care about their survival. The way they see the world, we are all very much in this together and it is only by acknowledging the humanity of all that we will survive. I’m reassured that I’m not a self-hating, history-denying Jew. I have another vision as to what it takes to survive and, moreover, what values make that survival worthwhile.
I return to the Upper West Side tired and dejected. Having overdosed on tribalism, I don’t want to light a candle even though it is the first night of Khanike. Instead, I go out to my corner store to pick up a few groceries. At the checkout, I am greeted by Malika, a young Moroccan woman in her ubiquitous headscarf, on her feet, working late. Malika came here to study nursing, venturing out on her own: no parents, no husband, hardly any friends. I’ve long been awed by her courage. We often speak French, something we both enjoy despite the fact that she has a noticeable stutter. In past months, she has been offering me greetings for shabbat and the Jewish holidays.
Malika asks me if I have lit the menorah. I confess I have not. She tells me Khanike is a beautiful holiday because it has to do with driving out the darkness, with eliminating impurity, with finding one’s own truth. I look up at her astonished, asking her how she knows all that. Barely dominating her stutter, she tells me in halting but audible Hebrew, “I really like learning about Jews, I want to speak in Hebrew.”
I have no explanation for Malika’s affinity, but I do know that her sweet smile under her headscarf is an antidote to all that has twisted up my insides these past days. Stepping out to Broadway, the night wind is cool and liberating. All is not lost. And not all of my choices have been misguided. I go home and hold the image of Malika in my mind’s eye as I light the first candle.
Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Nice Girl: A Memoir of Rupture and Return, published by our Blue Thread Books.