The Conspiracy

One of these things is not like the others | The Jew in the Boonies

Did you know? Hillel elections are coming up, and as planned, I’m running. They’re a mess, as far as clubs are concerned. I even talked to our rabbi a few days ago (under the guise of interviewing him for our newspaper), and he confirmed that our Hillel is a “Jewish affinity club” and that I should run etc. It made me feel pretty validated. I called my friend and we came up with a game plan—her idea being to get enough friends to run to corner the market and overturn Hillel leadership and make it great. It’s all very cloak-and-dagger.

But then I started worrying about our current Hillel president and her possible dislike of me. Why? Oh, I know. She hates my tzitzis. I notice these things. Every time we go to a Hillel event, she tends to stare at them like they’re snakes and I’m not really sure if she’s aware of her utter distaste or what, but my friend suggested that possibly she—and other “Hillel Jews,” as I’ve taken to calling them—can’t handle someone who’s both religious and not a crazy Haredi, i.e. it’s outside her sphere of knowledge. To them, you must either be secular or, well, crazy. I did indeed overhear a Hillel member explaining to a non-Jew, “Reform and Orthodoxy are basically two separate religions.” Reform, of course, being the normal one…and Orthodox being the unexplainable one, possibly involving witchcraft.

This explanation makes some sense to me, since the culture here is chiefly secular and I might even venture plainly anti-religious—”We can’t do that; that’s too Jewish!”—the same Hillel president who said that “We’re not like the religious groups on campus. We’re a different sort of group.” It doesn’t get plainer than that. Anyone who is “too Jewish” is either Haredi or insane, and in any case just not someone to be reckoned with.

I remember at the beginning of this year I was worried that my appearance would bar me from making friends. I mean, if you enter a college in the middle of the summer when everyone’s wearing shorty shorts and you’re wearing tzitzis, you start to become aware of things. But I’m realizing this is probably a longer-lasting struggle than how Hillel feels about tzitzis. The same friend and I went to some fancy restaurant a couple of days ago.  For this scenario just assume that I’m unaccustomed to fanciness in the first place, so I was wearing jeans etc. and gawked at all the people who actually put the napkins on their freaking laps, but anyhow, behold.

I usually say my brachas and stuff and don’t feel self-conscious, because I don’t really hang out in fancy joints anyway, and I’m not too worried about what tourists in the coffee shop think of me, because they all love W&M students and I feel like we’re part of the scenery anyway. But when you’re in a fancy place you kind of feel like you’re on display. You have to be decorous. You have to wear your napkin right and order right and so on and so forth. And it seems as if anything out of the ordinary should warrant a big spotlight, so yes when you whip out that bentcher the whole world is watching. Same for asher yatzar which I will never stop saying. It’s just not decorous. It’s like, save that stuff for home, you know? Oh, and tuck in your tzitzis because it might hit someone in the eye.

It’s odd, but I can see, even in 2011, how the striving for decorous reform in the 19th century easily led to a patterning of Protestant forms of worship and behavior. Where religion is inward and seemly and, well, no cause for fuss. It’s so easy to be like, “Oh no. Not here. It’s time to be dignified. Put that thing away.”

Crossposted at Crystal Decadenz.

Laura Cooper is a Religious Studies major at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA. Her interests include graphic novels, punk rock, and making Judaism interesting. She blogs at Crystal Decadenz. Her column, The Jew in the Boonies, appears here on alternating Sundays.

2 Older Responses to “One of these things is not like the others | The Jew in the Boonies”

  1. John
    November 6, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    It’s odd that that is the response you’ve gotten in many ways. I wear a tallit-katan, a kippah, etc., on a daily basis (on a Catholic campus, no less, and as a member of a Reform synagogue), and I’ve never really gotten looks. My Jewish community is pretty chill about it too, even if it makes me look a lot “more Jewish” than the norm among our congregation.

    As far as the “Reform is normal, Orthodox is insane” stuff… I think part of it comes from misunderstanding, but the other is rooted in a recognition of how mystical Orthodoxy can be. Reform Judaism rationalizes a lot of the processes of the Jewish daily practice. Orthodoxy embraces the mystery, the mystical… in some cases, the superstitious. For an outsider, it looks odd and any reminder of it is uncomfortable or at the least off-putting.

    I wonder how you’d fare in another setting. Like I said, being on a Catholic campus for three years, the biggest thing my girlfriend and I have received about our Judaism is, “Aren’t women supposed to stay away from wearing yarmulkes?” (She wears one, see.)

    Best of luck to you!

  2. Laura
    November 6, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    You guys sound cool.
    I don’t get looks from non-Jews (or if I do I don’t notice), probably because they don’t know what they’re looking at.. perhaps I’ve just found myself in an unusually judgmental Hillel.
    I too wonder how I’d fare in another setting.

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