The Beginning of School in The Boonies — The Jew in The Boonies
My first week of school has been… chaotic. Before I even came, there was a fire. After I came, there was an earthquake. Now this hurricane, not to mention the most grueling orientation ever invented and having to be social 24/7, which can get pretty tiring when you’re not used to it. Welcome to my apocalypse.
Meanwhile, my priorities have shifted. Back at home, where it’s considered a great achievement to graduate community college and not get pregnant before the age of 18, I had a great room and impetus to formulate all these fabulous lofty plans for life, and my theoretical theology grew and grew, and I had tons of time to decide that I had things figured out. No obstacles! No fear! But now that I’ve moved to Williamsburg, all the religious obligations I made while I was in my bubble are starting to have their effects now that I’m outside of my bubble.
For example, keeping kosher is hard on an Orientation schedule, where everyone is supposed to eat at the same time in the same dining hall. So is keeping Shabbat when you move into your new apartment on a Friday and the very next Friday you’re under evacuation orders!
I’ve had to pray on a bus, at a table, on the stairs, and at the bus stop (all in front of tons of people, of course), and those were the days I remembered to do it. And I’ve had to wonder how many people avoided talking to me because they thought my tzitzit was too weird or my clothes make me look poor–that last one’s probably true. When it’s the first week of classes and you’re trying to make friends, it’s a little exasperating to be confronted with this sudden clash of values. I’d prepared for this in theory, but now it’s starting to dawn on me that I’ve actually chosen to start this new life as that really, really religious kid that you ought to keep away from, and it’s a little frightening. Because I’m doing it to myself. For reasons I still don’t quite understand.
It all came to fruition at the first College of William & Mary Hillel event of the semester. During the Club Fair, the girl at the Hillel table seemed really excited to see me. “You should come to our barbecue!” she urged. So I had to go. I want to change the Jewish world as we know it, remember? I had to make friends with them. Needless to say, whether it was the impending hurricane or the fact that everyone looked like they were from Long Island, it didn’t go very well.
We had to walk through a bit on construction to get to it, and “it” turned out to be two picnic tables with hot dogs and chips on them. And a small group of people who could be barely bothered to look at the newcomers cautiously approaching them.
I don’t know if you can see what’s going on in the picture above, but I quickly noticed a certain something about the demographics of this event. It started out rather evenly distributed, but as time went on, more dudes started showing up. Weirdly, a couple of them seemed like they came straight from Long Island. That alone was enough to make me fearful, but I would have been perfectly OK had they been friendly Long Island dudes. But no, they went straight for their friends and my two guests and I went pretty much ignored.
Eventually, we were approached by one girl who recognized my friend from one of her classes, and they started talking, as I stood near them awkwardly. Some guy came up to my friend’s boyfriend and asked where he was from and so on. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.
“No, I’m just here with her,” he replied, pointing to my friend.
“Neither am I!” he whispered gleefully. I sighed.
They talked for a while and then the stranger walked off. And I took that moment to babble incoherently to someone near me (“Man, look at all the dudes,” I recall saying).
Maybe I’ll give them a break because it was their first event of the semester, and I guess they were more excited about seeing their friends than about greeting new people. Suddenly I thought back to all the discussions on how independent minyanim tend to be perceived as unfriendly to outsiders, but that’s just because they have a higher initial social curve… or something. After all, this Hillel proudly describes itself as “tightly knit,” and here I am seeing that description in the flesh. But look at these people! They seemed so incredibly… normal. It could have been any club on campus. What differentiated it? What made it special? What made it Jewish? These are the questions only a detective can answer.
But maybe it was partially my fault. These probably weren’t the type to wonder how to keep Shabbat during a hurricane evacuation, or to say seemingly constant berachot for things, or to go through painstaking soul-searching to figure out how they feel about halacha. (I mean maybe they do.) And that seems to be the baseline here. A cultural baseline. Fine.
But what does that make me? Ultra-Orthodox? Am I going to be the religious token again, just like I was in community college? Look, I know tzitzit looks weird. It’s weird to wear a denim skirt while everyone else is wearing shorty shorts. Of course they didn’t want to talk to me. When you suspect that you’re “too much” even for your Hillel, you really start to wonder what your priorities are. I knew all my newfound obligations weren’t going to make me any friends, but good heavens being ignored feels terrible when you know you’re probably bringing it on yourself. Am I doing a stupid thing? Should I just put an end to this before it’s too late?