On a school vacation day a number of years ago, here in the Holy Land, I’m out with my brood at an amusement park. The children are scattered; some on the bumper cars, others on trampolines and I’m at the plastic picnic tables along with the other bored adults, waiting for the kids to tire out or the place to shut down, whichever comes first.
Meanwhile, I’m using my idle moments to people watch pretending to be Marcel Proust sitting in a Parisian sidewalk café, which of course, I’m not.
Most of the other patrons are secular Israelis, but then I see, one of us, a frum young mother cradling a newborn baby in her arms. She’s cute—the mother I mean: one of those rare creatures who combines her Yiddishkeit with an inbred funk. I’ll bet that she has jazz on her CD player and pesto and sundried tomatoes in her fridge and davens where no one winces at the long curls tumbling out of her beret or the fact that her flary skirt stops just above her knees.
She reminds me of a discarded earlier version of myself. I’ve since gotten stodgier, and frummer, taken on borer and bug checking, shatnez and tznius . But somehow in the course spiritual climb, I’ve gotten judgmental. It is almost as if someone managed to install a frumkeit checker in my brain which automatically monitors the madreiga of everyone I encounter.
Ooops , here comes the young mother’s reading —several notches below me ( I could have guessed that) , definitely not Bais Yaacov material, wouldn’t pass through the admissions board in Kiryat Sefer…. a joke, a pseudo-orthodox Jew….. right?
I look at her again. Now I see that she isn’t alone. Along with her baby, she has another companion— a middle aged woman with thinning red hair dressed in black pants. Now, I put the pieces together.
The old woman is her mother and the young mother is one of us, a ba’alat teshuva, someone with the spiritual fine tuning to hear the Torah’s call over the media’s din. And she’s upended her identity, possibly changing her name, her address, her friends, to mend the broken links in the chain of tradition.
I imagine her fighting grueling internecine battles to establish a beachhead of kashrut and Shabbat and family purity—a real heroine.
The truth is that I’m making this up, but I’m making a point. I think I can size her up in a instant, but—let’s be real, I can’t. Who can I size up? What do I know of the young mother’s life or anyone else’s life, for that matter?
So why the frumkeit checker?
A few reasons come up. It’s a kick, albeit an unhealthy one. Righteous indignation is a high. There is a perverse thrill in that irresistible “how dare she” feeling that comes from sneering at someone else’s (especially someone younger and cuter) deficiencies.
And the checker also deflects insecurity, by marginalizing anyone different and potentially threatening and it begs a little question that most of us don’t like to ask—what if she is right and I am wrong. Putting her down changes that subject.
That is great, but it’s got a problem. The problem is that this isn’t the Torah’s approach. According to the Torah, when I encounter someone different what I need to determine is what I can learn from them, how I can use the interaction to grow .
As to the young mother I have no clue as to why her tznius is not quite normatively Halachic but I do know that she (and most everyone else in the place ) is a Jew.
Once upon a time, when a Jew met another Jew he’d call out “Sholom Aleichem Reb Yid.” Hello Mr. Jew, but that is mostly gone today, replaced by the frumkeit checker and it’s accessories, judge mentalism and divisiveness.
I need to find my own “Sholom Aleichem For this woman (and for all Jews) —at least in my heart and to delegate the job of other people’s spiritual repair to the Kiruv Rabbis and G-d.
As soon as I get out of this park, I’ve got Pesach cleaning to do and my first stop will be the hametz in my own head. Disabling that nasty frumkeit checker is a good first step.
Originally Published April 2009