10

A Modest Proposal

With the way people are dressing these days, they could use a little tzniut.

No, tzniut (if you’re in a more Yiddishized circle, tznius)is not the latest Swiss fashion accessory, but the Jewish concept of modesty for men and women that dates back to the Talmudic era. It literally translates to “modesty” or “privacy” and refers mostly to clothing, but also the way people lead their lives.

Is it worth it? Let me work it.

Just about every Orthodox Jewish girl (and definitely every Hassidic Jewish girl) covers themselves up with long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, and closed toed shoes. When she gets married, she might cover her hair with a hat, a scarf, or a full-on wig. It doesn’t end there, though. Included in the umbrella is negiah, or rules of touching, which are followed by avoiding physical contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex, and kol isha, or female voice, which mandates that hearing a woman’s singing can distract a man and lead him to impure thoughts. This rule does not apply for prayer, singing z’mirot at a dinner table, or a choir of mixed voices. Some even say that even a recorded female singer violates these laws.

Men do not have as many restrictions; just refrain from touching women and wear clothes that cover your body.

Growing up in Orthodox-Jew-Land, I was well aware of all of this. At my school, girls and women had freedom of choice to wear long pants if they wanted to; some did, but most stayed within the guidelines above. Touching was not explicitly forbidden, but it was generally frowned upon, and I don’t really think we ever had any huge singing issues; if you didn’t want to hear a girl sing, you wouldn’t come to any school musicals, or if you did, you went elsewhere whenever a woman was singing alone. Kind of hard, given that we were a high school and did musicals with plenty of parts for girls, no 1776 here.

I started noticing it more as I went to college and started seeing the stark differences between how people dressed in such mixed environments. As a male, it’s pretty easy for 99% of what you wear to be acceptable every day, and if you make the choice to become more religious, you probably won’t have to go to much trouble to buy new clothes. Girls have it a bit rougher; making the tznius choice means goodbye to bare shoulders, t-shirts, short skirts, and any type of pants, so usually a significant wardrobe overhaul is necessary.

Today, I feel that modesty is something our society is definitely lacking, promoted by corporate trends and celebrity couture. Sometimes a strapless or mini version of an outfit is tasteful, and then you have Miley Cyrus (sorry Miley, but I needed an extreme comparison). This might sound a little pander-y, but I think that women should be able to choose what they wear, and while most women pull off this look effortlessly, maybe tznius should be reexamined in our times. For example, long sleeves and long skirts are probably quite uncomfortable, even thin/airy fabrics, in hot summers and for Jewish women in tropical countries or Houston. While yes, it’s argued in the Talmud, a lot is based off of what women wore in the shtetls of wintry Russia or Poland where the wind chill made these outfits practical. Furthermore, I don’t see a huge problem with pants, either. Not all pants are skinny jeans, and many tznius girls have a tight denim skirt or two. A pair of slacks or trousers can even make an outfit look sleeker and more elegant, and it would make riding a bike or climbing a ladder a lot easier. I don’t see tznius clothes as being restrictive in any way or out of fashion, but give girls a break. As long as they’re dressed appropriately for the weather, occasion, and activity, you’re good to go right there.

This leads me to talk about my own personal tzniut appearance and behavior. I made the decision awhile back to stop wearing shorts of any kind; not just because I don’t like my legs, but I just don’t see any reason why they need to be exposed – and also a bit of solidarity with my Orthodox Jewish sistas. With tank tops/wife beaters/muscle shirts, I didn’t grow up wearing them, and they certainly weren’t allowed in my school, so they never really joined my wardrobe. I love t-shirts, but since I live in Wisconsin now, I’ve been layering them over long sleeve shirts, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. The only time you’ll probably ever see me in shorts is when I am in going swimming, and even then, I’m underwater, so ha ha you can’t see me.

Probably the most surprising thing about my personal style is that this applies even at the gym. I’m always the guy in the long pants (the stretchy kind, not sweatpants, who does that?) and a shirt that covers most of the top half of me.

Orthodox Jewish girls know what’s up…and I stand with them (but not in a skirt) when I call on all my menfolk to display some tznius and look like a gentleman.

I mean, do you see what most guys wear to the gym these days?

Also – if anyone knows why my stats are skyrocketing, (1000 views today, thank you very much!), please tell me, because I’ve spent most of the past forty-eight hours bewilderingly watching people (mostly across America) click on my site, yet I only have about 120 followers, and 67 comments, most of which are my own. This blog is kinda lame most days, so either I’m doing something right or the Internet is going bonkers. So, if you’re reading, please leave a comment about what you think and how you got here (so I can get a sense of what’s going on, did someone put me on BuzzFeed or something? – I’m not that amazing of a writer), or a like, or an idea of something you want me to write about. Oh, and keep visiting, Americans. You too, other countries.

0

Oh, The Life of A Working Man in Israel

When I was in Israel, I had a job. Okay, technically it was an internship, but I did a heck of a lot more than just an intern including running the place for a whole month while the boss was doing army reserve duty. Some days I liked it, some days I didn’t, but every Sunday through Friday, I was at that theater, working away. In Israel, Friday and Saturday are their weekends which makes more sense if you ask me, but it also makes Tuesday Hump Day, which is confusing, and sometimes I’d forget and go to work on Friday and be confused when I’d be sitting at my desk for hours without seeing anyone else.

Around December, I got my first visitors from overseas. My parents and sister came over, and just as they were leaving, my friend Dan arrived on a Birthright trip from Boston. We met in Machane Yehuda and it was magic – four of my favorite people standing with me in a busy marketplace. I met Dan’s Birthright friends, and as it was a Friday, Dan and I planned to get together after Shabbat.

The next night, I take a bus over to the hotel where his group was staying (the Jerusalem Gate Hotel, which is at the complete opposite end of the city from where I lived :-/) Since his group was all at the upper echelon of Birthright-age-people (25-26 year olds), they had a “curfew” set by Birthright, but all that really meant was that they had to sign a check-in sheet at the hotel at 10 PM, and then do whatever the hell they wanted since they were legal in both Israel and America. So, Dan and everyone want to go to a club. I’m not a huge club-goer, but there is one club that I do know: Tza’atzua, which is near Ben Yehuda Street. It’s too far to walk, and nobody but me has a bus pass, so we flag down a cab and I tell the driver where we’re going, what neighborhood it’s in, to call and order 4 more cabs, and negotiate a price (all of which I did in Hebrew!). He happily called his friends, who showed up quicker than ambulances in many parts of the world, and we had a little cab caravan down the road, with me, Dan, and another guy in the front.

We get to the club, and get in line to get our IDs checked to get into the club. Somehow, Dan and I end up at the back of the line, which is rapidly expanding behind us. All of Dan’s friends get in, and then it’s me and Dan. Dan’s ID gets checked, and he’s in. My ID gets checked and “sorry, you can’t go in.”

Huh?

In Israel, you can drink at age 18 (or 19, I can never remember), and most clubs are pretty lax anyway. I mean, people smoke in clubs, even though it’s not only frowned upon but actually illegal there. I tell them that there must be some mistake, I’m definitely of age.

Then they tell me, “Yes, but tonight we are having a 25-and-up night.”

Fuck. I’m screwed. I’m 22. And I just sent fifteen people into a nightclub in a city they’ve never been in that speaks a language that they don’t know. And Dan is standing there, like “I guess this is it for you then.”

So, what do I do?

Well, I really don’t want to go the club anyway…I just don’t want to abandon these people, and it’s late and I’m tired and I kinda want to go home because I have work and stuff to do tomorrow, and I’m sad, and frustrated, and a little bit angry.

I want to vocalize this and appeal to the bouncers.

So I do.

And it comes out of my mouth like this:

“…באסה. תראה, אני יודע שאני רק בן עשרים ושתיים ואני מאמריקה, אבל הם החברים שלי, ואני נשאר רק, כאילו, עשר דקות, כי אני צריך ללכת לעבודה בבוקר”

Translated:

“Oh fuck. Look, I know I’m only twenty-two and I’m from America, but they’re my friends, and I’m only gonna stay for, like, ten minutes, because I have to go to work in the morning…”

The reason I put the ellipses there?

Once they heard me launch into Hebrew and mention the fact that I’m working in the morning, I get cut off, with…”b’seder (okay),  go on in.”

I totally wasn’t expecting that, but hey, it worked. I guess Israel’s got some respect for its hard-working men, or barely-twenty-two-year-old-theatre-intern-type-people. But I don’t leave myself too much time to contemplate as I basically push Dan down the stairs and into the club, afraid that the intimidating guys at the entrance will suddenly change their minds. So we all made it in, an a big cheer came from the group when we entered. We all danced for a while – well, they did, I guess, I left pretty after maybe a half hour at most, making sure that between them they a) knew where they were going back to, and b) had enough cash to cover it.

I leave the club, nod at the bouncers, and guess who’s still there?

The cab guy, who’s just chilling out in the front seat of his cab, waiting for someone to drunkenly stumble out of the club so he can make some money. We notice each other as I pass, he thanks me for getting him some business, and asks me where I’m going. I tell him that I’m walking back to my place in Talpiot, I have to get to work in the morning.

“Get in, I’ll take you home. No charge.”

And that’s how I got a free cab ride home at the middle of the night in Jerusalem.

2

For Shiran, Who May or May Not Have Any Friends

Because my life is pretty much all work and no sleep right now, it’s time for a story.

Here’s another one from the Israel collection.

It was October 2009, and I’d been in Israel for a few months. During that time, my Hebrew improved somewhat and I also joined a small gym on Emek Refaim. I found out after several weeks though that another gym in town, Body and Soul, in Talpiot, was offering some more discounted memberships, albeit being a little further. I expressed interest, as well as some other people in the program, and someone submitted our names and phone numbers to the gym. A few days later, I get a call from an unknown number. I pick up the phone and I hear this.

“Hi. This is Shiran. Would you like to be my friend?”

Huh?

Um…I guess so? I don’t really know how to answer when someone introduces themselves like that to me on the phone. Here’s how the next part of the convo went.

ME: Huh?

SHIRAN: Hi, my name is Shiran, would you like to be my friend?

ME: Um…sure, yeah…do you have any other friends?

SHIRAN: No.

ME: (in a kind of sad voice) Awww…

SHIRAN: So?

ME: Are you sure you don’t have any friends?

SHIRAN: Yes. No. I don’t know.

ME: (silence) …I’m so sorry. That’s really sad. I’ll be your friend, but…how did you get this number?

SHIRAN: I am calling from Body and Soul Gym. Would you like to be a friend of the gym?

ME: (ding!) Ohhhhh, you mean a member of the gym?

SHIRAN: I don’t know.

ME: Ohhh, dear, that’s something very different.

SHIRAN: What?

ME: (in Hebrew) Is Hebrew better? I speak Hebrew.

SHIRAN: (In Hebrew) Yes. Would you like to be khaver kheder kosher (חבר חדר כושר)?

ME: (in Hebrew) Ohhhh, now I get it. Yes, I would, thank you.

Here’s the deal: In Hebrew, the word khaver (חבר) means “friend.” That day, I also learned that it means “member.” Same thing in Hebrew; two quite different concepts in English. Shiran must have been either very new or particularly unsuccessful with English-speaking clients, because one would think that someone would have pointed that out to her.

The conversation continued on as normal (as normal as one can get) in Hebrew. After I’d given her all my info for her records, I returned to the beginning of the conversation, and explained in Hebrew as best I could what I thought she had asked me in the beginning and why I was confused. And that I felt sad when she told me that she had no friends, and I laughed. She laughed along with me, saying in English:

SHIRAN: Oh, oh, yes, now I know. Okay.

ME: But you’re okay, right?

SHIRAN: Yes, I am fine.

ME: But you have friends, right?

SHIRAN: No.

(short pause)

I mean, yes.

ME: Um, are you sure about that?

SHIRAN: Yes, I think so.

ME: Okay, well, if you ever want to talk, just give me a call, okay?

SHIRAN: Sure. Yes. Okay. Bye.

ME: Bye.

And that’s how I joined a gym and met possibly the loneliest girl in the world (who, afterwards, I unfortunately never had the pleasure of meeting) all in the same day.

Or the most confused.

Either way, Shiran, this one’s just for you.

Oh, and if anyone is ever in the general vicinity of Jerusalem and can make a quick trip into Talpiot (just take the 22/22a from Central Bus Station to Bak’a and walk downhill until you hit Talpiot, or take the line to Givat Pat and walk uphill), stop by the Body and Soul Gym on Hamusachim 5, top floor, find Shiran and give her a hug, because she may or may not have made any new friends in the past four years.