Last week when I was at the JCC, I saw a girl I knew from our old Ultra Orthodox community. Not thinking twice about it, I took the boys over to say hi. She saw us coming and walked toward us smiling as she called the boys’ names and they rushed to her, waving hello and with arms flung wide, and gave her a big hug.
“Long time no see!” I said, suddenly remembering that the last time she’d seen me my hair was covered in a scarf and my legs with a skirt. I wondered, not able to do much about it, if she would feel weird about talking to me now.
The girl smiled and opened her mouth to speak but before she could say anything her father, dressed in black pants, a white shirt, with a black hat on his head, looking every bit the picture perfect image of a Haredi Jewish man, stepped in front of her and angrily shouted in my direction, “You’re not Jewish! Don’t talk to my daughter!” He turned away and without another word dragged her with him by the arm. I was left standing in the cafe, surrounded by people staring at me. I was slightly embarrassed, confused, and more than a little pissed off.
Quickly I tried to gather our things and push my children out the door when a man with a toddler in his arms walked over to me and said kindly, “Hey, don’t worry about those people.” I smiled at him because I didn’t think I could talk without crying and left faster than I’ve ever left anywhere with two children in tow. I got everyone buckled into the car at record speed, then I sat in the front seat, took a deep breath, and wondered if my 4-year-old picked up on the commotion.
Of course he did.
“Why did that rabbi yell at you and say you aren’t Jewish?”
I ran through the list of kid friendly explanations in my head and finding none, tried to justify saying “because he’s an asshole” but realized that would just cause bigger problems for me later.
I decided to start small and said, “Well, he wasn’t a rabbi. Lots of Jewish men that look like that aren’t rabbis, right?”
“Like Zaydie,” he said, proudly referring to my husband’s father.
“Yep, like Zaydie.”
“But Zaydie isn’t mean,” he continued his thought, running his fingers over the fog on the window beside him.
“No, not all of them are mean.”
“And not all of them are nice?” he asked looking back at me.
“No, you have to get to know people one at a time to know if they’re nice.” I wondered if he would understand. If he could understand.
He giggled and said, “That’s a lot of people!”
Then he asked me again why the man said I wasn’t Jewish. I rambled on about how because I converted, when I stopped covering my hair some people decided that meant I wasn’t Jewish. I was met with a blank stare and silence as he waited for me to continue. It was like being put on the spot to solve a math problem in high school. I didn’t know where to start.
Trying a different approach I thought aloud, “What if I told you that you weren’t a little boy? What if I told you that you were a hippopotamus?”
Again he laughed, called his little brother a billy goat, and said, “That’s silly.”
“Would you care if I thought you were a hippopotamus?”
“What would you think?”
“That you’re weird.” He smiled big and tried unsuccessfully to wink, then asked, “So you don’t care that he yelled at you?”
“No, I think it was weird,” I told him honestly.
“Me too.” I could see him thinking to himself for a few seconds before he looked at me again in the rear view mirror and said, “Maybe he was just having a bad day.”
Read more about Yael’s Jewish journey, including why being Orthodox didn’t work for her, explaining her Jewish family to her Christian parents, and surviving Shabbat at the Ultra Orthodox in-laws.