I had a shocking experience today. I have a cordial and somewhat of a “working” relationship with the local public library. Now.
I remember the librarians’ trepidation when as new residents I would stroll in with six children in tow, confident in my ability to maintain “order”.
There is one librarian in particular is, well, just the cranky type. Over the years, I have listened to my fair share of curt reprobations and reminders, and I have tried to respond to with consistent smiles, patience and cheeriness. Over the years she has come to understand that my children actually won’t trash her library. She has come to appreciate my desire to not only respect her, but the library itself. My volunteering to teaching music programs there hasn’t hurt. I only learned this year that the library is her baby. She is responsible for its existence, and has been there tending to it since it was a storefront with some boxes of donated books. So, she is naturaly protective. I have come to understand and have tremendous admiration for her efforts and concern for the library. I recognize her worries as those of a mother cub, the library being her baby.
I gave a performance at the library yesterday, a celebration of Jewish music for children and their families. I went back to the library today for some follow up, and she was very kind and appreciative.
And that is when she said it: ”You know, I have to say, you are just, well, more put together than a lot of those Orthodox women. You should talk to them. You know it really is such a shame.”
She truly meant it as a compliment. What I think is lost on her is that when I go into the library the VAST majority of the people coming in are in T-shirts, tank tops, jeans, shorts, flip flops, etc. It is totally, utterly normal in our small, rural town to be very casually dressed. From where I am standing, “dressed” is a very kind adjective some of the time. Yet it’s those “Orthodox women” that are slobs. Isn’t it always?
I think it goes without saying that the only reason she noticed so starkly and felt she could say something to me is because she is a non-Orthodox Jew. You know the lack of funkiness on the part of us religious ladies is really giving the rest of the Jews such a bad name… and clearly it isn’t appreciated.
I don’t resent her feeling the way she does, or even her telling me. In fact, I am glad she feels she can speak plainly to me with candor.
Having lived in the US as a non-Orthodox Jew, Israel as an Orthodox Jew, and then back in the US as an Orthodox Jew, I really, really do understand exactly how she feels.
Lenny Solomon of Shlock Rock* produced an album of original songs called No Limits. On that album he has a song called “Representing”. “Every day we’re representing…” he sings. And we are. We are Hashem’s agents. Ambassadors. Everything we say and do is watched, noticed and judged. By EVERYONE who isn’t a religious Jew, especially other Jews. It is true all of the time.
This morning I put on a little makeup and jewelry to go to the library and grocery store. I am known in both. (Did I mention this is a small, rural town?) No one who spends what I do in the grocery store on a weekly basis goes unnoticed. Consistently needing two shopping carts doesn’t help either. Today they remarked on the miracle of my having no kids in tow. Really.
Part of me feels really silly getting done up for the library and grocery store. Why take the time? Who cares what other people think? It is a trip to the grocery store, after all.
The other part of me knows that every three to four weeks a complete stranger will stop me while I shop and tell me about their intermarried daughter, their trip to Israel 15 years ago, or even that they have a “baal te-something” child that won’t eat much in their home. Do I mind if they follow me and watch what I buy?
There was a day I was wearing particularly shlumpy clothes into the local CVS. Who would notice? Who would even know I was a frum Jew? In a denim skirt, sweatshirt and baseball hat I could be anybody…. only I forgot that my son with his tzitzit and kippah was with me. A Jewish couple that had just moved into town stopped me outside and introduced themselves as I went back to my car. I have (embarrassing) reminders like this happen to me all of the time.
It is Elul, and we are supposed to remember now more than ever that Hashem is always watching us. That he sees what we do, how we behave, and that he deeply, deeply cares. It can be a positive motivator to remember that people are watching too. Whenever you think “it’s just me” and they aren’t watching you, they are. It isn’t just a question of whether we bothered with makeup or some jewelry, or clothes that have even some modicum of fashion.
We frum Jews sort of think that the world is holding us to a higher standard when it comes to how we speak, how much we smile at others, our patience when waiting in line, etc. But “we” is awfully communal and vague. Each and every individual one of us really is. The way I see it, it is an obligation and a burden, but also a privilege .
It is a burden of privilege the same way that living in Israel is: it is a burden of relevance.
*Shlock Rock is coming to the US later this year and I am booking engagements for them, so if you are interested, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org