Monday, March 12, 2012

Yes, these are my pants.

There are many things about Jerusalem that I love, but one of my favorite things is how thoroughly enjoyable it is to people watch here. A full day of people watching in Jerusalem can easily consist of tourists from every corner of the world, monks, priests of various Christian denominations, Muslims, hip kids with weird haircuts (Why do so many Arab teenage boys shave the sides of their head until their hair comes to a point at the back of the neck? Why, I ask you?), fashionable Orthodox Jewish women pushing babies in strollers and somehow making it look sleek and stylish, hordes of adorable kids with tiny peyas running around in the streets, black hats, fur hats even in July, and IDF soldiers casually standing in line for a coffee with their guns slung over their shoulder. There are plenty of unassuming, everyday folks around town completing this eclectic mix of course, but Jerusalem is rarely dominated by the mundane things. The day to day life here, and what it looks like, is anything but typical in the rest of this world. But people watching is why I love visiting all of the different neighborhoods, each one distinct and with its own character. Admittedly, I am completely fascinated by the Haredi ones. Why? Well,I suppose you could chalk it up to my almost completely Jewless upbringing which makes Haredi culture seem so new and intriguing (mind you, not necessarily appealing) to me. This doesn't mean that I gawk at them like some clueless tourist, and in any case, you become used to the sight of them everywhere after about a week of living here. I just find places such Meah Shearim to be rather singular, and walking through the streets can be an experience in and of itself. That being said, I am also aware that I am not Haredi, will likely never be, and the Haredi view of the world is rather different from my own. If I walk onto their turf, I try to be respectful. I don't mind wearing a skirt and making sure that my boobs aren't on display. It's not a hard thing to do, considering my normal manner of dress, anyway. There have been times however, when I've found myself in the awkward situation of looking like the clueless tourist (and let's be honest; in my case, a clueless shiksa, though I supposedly shed my shiksa skin in the mikvah last June), wandering around what is clearly a religious neighborhood in my jeans and sandals. I never mean to do it--it just happens, and somehow, it happened twice this week.

Now, I'm well aware of the fact that the Haredim don't own the streets, and outside of Meah Shearim, it's unlikely that you'll get accosted in many of the religious neighborhoods for being dressed "immodestly" (I'm sure, however, that this is true only by degrees; wearing jeans as a woman is probably an entirely different ball-game from strutting through Geulah in a halter top and booty shorts).  

For instance, this is only acceptable in Tel Aviv, ladies
But I have a strong conservative streak in me that likes to respect the traditions and practices of others when I'm in their "home," so to speak. I don't even like approaching the Kotel in pants, because there appears to be a quiet, little frum voice that occasionally pops into my head, that tells me the "proper" thing to do. Plus, when it comes to wandering around their neighborhoods, I would rather blend in anyway; it allows me to feel like I can maneuver through the streets and freely explore the place more comfortably, because despite my goth/wanna-be punk phase in high school, I don't really like to stand out so much that I get looks from those around me that make me feel like I must be from another planet. Being white in China made me feel that way, and wearing pants and a t-shirt in a religious neighborhood here in Jerusalem also makes me feel that way. They're uncomfortable, I'm unless I'm just passing through, it's better, I think, to just blend in and enjoy the experience of being out of your element for a bit.

So, as I was observing the Fast of Esther (there's that little frum voice again, telling me that even minor fasts are important to observe...I wonder why that little frum voice doesn't wake me up on Shababt mornings and tells me to be a good Jew and go to shul?), I decided to torture myself further by shopping for food at the shuk, since my cupboards were bare, and I needed to prepare for co-hosting a seudah. So I went in the evening, armed with a shopping list ("no, no grumbling seems like a good idea to buy a pound of rugelach now, but later on, we will be glad that we didn't, and that we stuck to our list..."), a bottle of water (the most crucial thing--the hardest part of fasting is not drinking water, doubly so in Middle East), and two cookies given to me earlier in the day as an early mishloach manot. The plan was that I would be done with my shopping  and on the bus by the time the fast was ending, and I'd drink my water and eat my cookies on the bus to pace myself before getting home and devouring a decent meal with fresh shuk produce and whatnot. This was better than my original plan from earlier in the day, which was to eat at a kosher McDonald's just for novelty's sake (I feel oddly obligated to eat there just once, just because I know when I go back to the States, I'll regret not saying, "You know what? I've eaten at a kosher McDonald's...isn't that fascinating?"), but I thought better of it in the end; apparently, stuffing a Big Mac and a bunch of greasy fries into your face after a fast can be a regrettable experience.

All was going according to plan, until I decided to walk home a different way than I usually do when visiting the shuk. This is an incredibly, profoundly stupid thing for me to do, and I should know better, because I have absolutely no sense of direction, whatsoever. I am the embodiment of the directionless female stereotype. I've gotten turned around in hallways before where there were only two directions for me to take. I think it might be an uncategorized disorder, or a mild form of retardation. My blonde hair only enhances the unfortunate stereotype too, I'm afraid.

Me: Okay, I know Jerusalem is around here somewhere.
Taking new routes and getting a little lost for a bit is fine when one is not starving, thirsty, and tired from a long day of fasting, attending Mishnah class, a women and mitzvot class, and shopping at the crazy Jerusalem shuk right before Purim for an upcoming seudah (wow...when did I get so frum?). Plus, I didn't have my ridiculous, yet handy shuk bag on wheels with me. Instead, I was carrying two large bags, filled with produce and food which requires cooking (ideally) before being consumed, accessories for my Purim costume, and of course, in the spirit of Purim, I had also purchased three bottles of wine (they were having a really good sale at the wine, I'm a wino, so I couldn't pass it up). Still, I strolled casually off into the wrong direction, bogged down with the weight of my purchases, completely unaware of where I was, which happened to be the very religious neighborhood of Mekor Baruch. 

I started to get the feeling that I wasn't in Kansas anymore, when every single person who passed me for the first few minutes of my stroll was wearing a black hat and suit, peyot bouncing along the sides of their heads as the hurried off to presumably break the fast at shul. And there were many shuls. I then realized that I was wearing pants, and because I was sweating what precious moisture I still had in me from the sheer exertion of carrying so much, my jacket was off and tucked into a bag, leaving my arms as naked as the day I was born. 

Okay, I thought. No biggie. Perhaps I'll get some disapproving looks, but really, in my experience, outside of the overly publicized, insane people who will spit at you and call you a slut, even if you are dressed rather modestly (I'm looking at you, Beit HaShemesh), the Haredim, in most places, don't pay you any mind if you're not bothering them. Jerusalem is not Harediland. They are used to seeing women in pants around most of the city, and the ones who are most offended by it tend to stay where they don't have to see it. Still, it's odd to wander around in their neighborhoods, which are noticeably void of the modernity of cars, at dusk, just as they are all out walking around, about to break this minor fast that they surely are observing, and here you are; a woman in pants, bogged down with shopping bags, bright pink shirt shining like a beacon of secularism, in sea of modest black. 

Still, I became aware of the time, and despite being helplessly lost at this point (I'd start making like Hansel and Gretel and leave a trail of bread crumbs to find my way back in this city, if I wasn't certain that all of the alley cats that plague Jerusalem would swarm in and gobble them all up the second they hit the ground), I had to stop, rest, hydrate, and eat my precious, precious cookies that I had brought with me. It was either that or bite into a raw onion from the shuk, along with uncooked noodles, potatoes and perhaps the actually viable option of the bell pepper. Haredim continued to stroll by me, mostly not looking at me, though a few of the kids would give me a curious look, or a sidelong glance would be cast my way by an adult. I just continued to suck at my water bottle like a furiously irritated baby, and inhale the cookies. Then it was back to figuring out how the hell to get out of this unfamiliar neighborhood.

I finally found a highway with bus stops, so I assumed that at least these would orient me, or a kind bus driver would take pity on me and direct me to where to go. However, these buses were different from the normal Egged buses that go all over town, and consisted of unfamiliar bus numbers such as 406 and 225...Haredi buses schlepping those who live just outside of Jerusalem in and out of the center of town. Sighing, I trudged on, too embarrassed and uncomfortable to ask for directions (there's something really undignified about asking for directions after living here for nine months, and it totally has to do with my pride and wanting to separate myself from the many, many tourists that invade Jerusalem all year. Plus, I'm still not very confident with my Hebrew, and English speaking Haredim are not as common as non-Haredi Jews who speak English, and...well, I was dressed so "immodestly," anyway). My stomach was growling furiously at me at this point, demanding that I stuff that raw bell pepper and onion into my face before I die.

Finally...finally, I heard the familiar "ding, ding!" of the Jerusalem light rail, the route of which I am actually familiar with, it being quite a straightforward shot (and yes, I did once take the wrong train going in the opposite direction of my desired destination). That was how I got out of Mekor Baruch, surprisingly without passing out from exhaustion and hunger.

The second time I found myself in pants (and sandals, as well) in a religious neighborhood, was during a lovely Shabbat afternoon stroll, just one day after Purim, and two days after getting lost the first time. I was with a few friends, two guys and a girl, and the guys do look rather Orthodox (typically they wear white dress shirts, black slacks, a kippah, and a beard), and the other girl amongst us was dressed in a long skirt and a modest, sleeved shirt. After enjoying a walk around Nachlaot, (perhaps my favorite Jerusalem neighborhood, and desired future home), we decided to venture into the more religious neighborhoods, such as the ultra-Orthodox Zichron Moshe...or rather, that's where we ended up, which sparked the curiosity of one amongst us who doesn't spend much time in Haredi areas. And since this was on Shabbat, and the weather was particularly nice, EVERYONE was out in the streets, soaking up the sun, strolling around, the kids playing in the absolutely carless streets. To make matters worse, because we were drinking whiskey before leaving our Shabbat lunch, we decided it would be a good idea to take advantage of Israel's laws regarding alcohol, which in no way forbids walking around in public with open containers of booze. This public drinking was a bit more discreet and not really looked down upon when my frum-looking friends were partaking in the libations, but for me, a female wearing pants with a shirt sporting a lower than average neckline, and sandals on my nearly naked feet, while drinking from a double shot glass full of whiskey? While speaking American English and wearing lipstick? That's not so discreet. Not too surprisingly, I got more than a few looks this time, of the not so friendly kind, especially from the women. I can only imagine what they thought of me.

  Probably something like this
Thankfully, we didn't make it to Meah Shearim (which was the desired destination, it was decided, somewhere in the middle of our walk, because one of us had never been there), but, well hey, look at the time! Time to go back to the apartment and do Havdalah. Personally, I don't want to be spat upon or have rocks thrown at me, or even just glared at by hostile Haredim. 

Sometimes I surprise myself when I get into these quite avoidable situations, even after being here for nine months. It really reminds me that I am in fact in a foreign land, behaving like the stranger that you have to be nice to, even though she's really getting under your skin and you kind of disapprove of her ways. But I like to think that it's only a clear sign that I feel at home here. And while I'm making myself comfortable, wandering around Haredi neighborhoods in my pants while drinking whiskey, I suppose that's really a good thing. I like thinking of Jerusalem as home. Not everyone is going to be comfortable walking in on you splayed out in the recliner, wearing only your underwear, drinking a beer and watching the game, so to speak. But hey, it's my home too.

And for the record, I don't care what the Haredim say; not all pants are men's pants because pants are masculine by default. Ask any man if he'd wear our flared, low-rise, stretch denim jeans with flowers embroidered on the butt, and he'll tell you the same. Oh well. That's Jerusalem for you. I cherish the moments when I feel that we can agree to disagree around here, and I'm often reminded that, despite what the media would have you think, a woman wearing pants does not need to expect to be spat upon, or find rocks being thrown her way in every neighborhood where the Orthodox make their homes. Even if they don't approve of my attire, typically, when I try to be friendly and I say to them, "shabbat shalom," more likely than not, I'll get a mumbled, "shabbat shalom" in return.

 By the way, I really can frum it up. It's creepy.

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About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

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Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.