“He was so cruel!”
This was uttered–in a tearful, anguished voice–by a cousin my family was visiting when I was 19 years old, in what was possibly the most embarrassing moment of my life.
I’d just transferred colleges at the beginning of my sophomore year, and had met Orthodox Jews for the first time. From my first encounter with this new group at Hillel dinner, I was intrigued: drawn to their passion; their eagerness to discuss weighty questions; their joy in their religious observance. I’d grown up “Conservative,” and in our home, that meant following a few commandments, both real and imagined: eating gribenas and schmaltz on major holidays; having strong feelings for our local Chinese restaurants; and the strict observance of exactly one mitzvah–thou shalt not eat pork. Everything else seemed negotiable. Now that I was getting to know a very different type of Judaism, I’d started keeping some new Jewish rituals, too: attending Shabbat services; eating kosher foods; even saying the traditional “Shacharit” morning prayers each day.
That’s where I got into trouble. It was winter break, and I didn’t want to abandon my new-found habit of davening, or prayer: I found the language beautiful, the ritual soothing. It was a beautiful way to start my days.
I was well aware my family didn’t share my new-found enthusiasm for all things Jewish. Take my cousin: She knew about Orthodox Judaism, she’d announced the night before, because she’d recently finished a gripping novel set in a repressive Hasidic community. The main character beat his wife, she explained to general nods and murmurs of outraged sympathy. So that first morning, when I woke up early, I naturally eyed the substantial walk-in closet next to the guest room as a perfect spot to find privacy for the 20 minutes or so I needed to pray.
You can guess the rest: the cousin who opened the closet door and startled at seeing me standing there. The family crowding round: me literally “out of the closet” as a newly-Orthodox Jew. My cousin informed my staring family that this reminded her of the book she just read! Its protagonist prayed too, she explained, but as holy as he pretended to be, as religious as he was, he was still a horrible person. He was so cruel.
I don’t remember what novel it was that so captivated my cousin–all this was over 20 years ago–but I’ve encountered my share of books in the years since that portray Orthodox characters as bizarre, even sinister. Of course, literary drama can be set in any community–and religious Jewish communities are as complex and interesting as any–but as an Orthodox Jew myself now, I find myself cringing sometimes at particularly off-putting portrayals. Take Nathan Englander’s bestseller “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” which was a huge hit the year my husband and I planned our Orthodox wedding. Featuring a grotesque array of Orthodox characters–the title story features a rabbi telling a congregant to visit prostitutes when he tires of his wife–it was the only exposure some friends at our wedding had to Orthodox life, and was a popular topic of conversation.
“I don’t like him,” whispered one close relative who’d just read the book in her book group, eyeing warily the bearded, black-clad rabbi at our reception, as if he was an exotic specimen, instead of the religious leader we adored.
Others have had similar suspicions about our religious observance since then. One Passover, I told my secular neighbor we were taking our kids to visit a very religious friend and her family in New York. My neighbor was agog: She’d read about the type of pious community I described, where men wore black hats and women wigs; she couldn’t wait to hear all about our holiday.
The visit was wonderful. Our families hit it off–my 7-year-old son and my friend’s 8-year-old daughter especially. The night before we were to depart, our kids came to a tearful decision: One day, they announced–despite the cruelty of having to say goodbye, despite living in different cities–they would be together again. I’ll always remember my little son looking up at me, solemn and resolute, and explaining that one day he would marry his newest best friend.
I thought it was adorable, and back home I told my neighbor all about it. “We all had a great time in New York,” I announced, “Especially my first-grader. He’s engaged!” I said with a laugh.
She froze. You know when you read that the blood drained from someone’s face? I’d always assumed that was just an expression, but now realized it can happen. She became pale, and a look of horror crossed her face.
“No!” I hastened to say. “I’m joking!” As she slowly got her color back, I realized that for one moment I’d stopped being her neighbor–her fairly ordinary friend who just happened to not drive her car on Saturdays. Instead, I was a character in a story: one about crazy ultra-Orthodox Jews who betroth their kids at age 7.
Luckily, our relatives have become more accepting of our Orthodoxy over time, though I think that’s because knowing us so well, they no longer consider us part of the negative world they’ve read about. One relative recently whispered to my daughter that she hopes our boys never turn out like “that,” gesturing towards a man walking by wearing a kippah, black trousers, and white shirt. My daughter was incredulous: That’s how her brothers look, she said. Our relative hadn’t noticed.
It pains me when my fellow Orthodox Jews are featured as strange, extremist, or downright bizarre characters in books and films. Judaism–the yearning, striving Orthodox Judaism to which I subscribe–teaches that kol Yisrael achim, all Jews are siblings. Whatever our differences, we’re all part of one family, and whatever our faults and failings, we’re trying our best. That’s one depiction of Orthodoxy that I’d love to see.