MEeting the “Enemy”

In my early 20’s, after many summers spent in Orthodox summer camps, I was hired by the Conservative Movement’s Ramah Camp to be its Sports Director in one of their camps. There I met a young woman (for the sake of her privacy, I’ll here call her Toni), who I started “dating” in camp. She was nothing like most girls/women I had ever met – very serious about religion and other social issues. We had many discussions, among other matters about “feminism” – something completely alien to someone like me, a product of Jewish Orthodox education through high school. After a month, she told me her not so secret “secret”: she was a lesbian. Didn’t I say “nothing like most girls/women I had ever met”?

No, that’s not a misprint in the title. It does say “MEeting” (I’ll end this essay with another “misprint” – something to look forward to…)

Almost everyone – except perhaps for children of diplomats and military officers moving from country to country every few years – spend all their youth growing up in much the same social milieu, even if they move once or twice to a different city. That provides comfort, for we quickly learn who’s who, how to behave, what is expected of us, and most of all: what’s “normal”. The downside, of course, is that such a milieu is a social bubble; we basically have no idea how other social groups and certainly different cultural enclaves live their lives and what they consider to be important or “acceptable”.

Frankly, this is especially true and problematic for citizens of large countries and/or countries that are mostly separated territorially from the rest of the world. Those two elements characterize Americans more than any other significant nation on the planet. If you’ve never seen it, look up Sternberg’s famous New Yorker cartoon cover; it even has its own Wikipedia page!

It is also true for very cohesive social groups (religious, ethnic etc) – Orthodox Jews among them. This is not necessarily negative; that cultural self-ghettoization has enabled the Jewish People to survive longer than any other national culture on the face of the Earth (Chinese culture as we understand it today goes back “only” 2500 years to Confucius). But it does leave the average individual within that cultural enclave pretty clueless about other ways of life. Like I was.

It might seem that there isn’t much of a cultural gap between modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. (As an aside: as a matter of fact, theologically [not sociologically] there isn’t that great a difference; one could somewhat simplistically but still truthfully argue that modern Orthodoxy is today’s Beit Shammai and the Conservative approach to halakha [Jewish law] is Beit Hillel. The former school [from 2000 years ago] was very strict in its interpretation of the law, whereas the latter were far more lenient and flexible. Interestingly – something that many Orthodox today have forgotten – the final decision on what was to be done was almost always according to Beit Hillel!) But the milieu from which Orthodox Jews emerge is quite constricted, as opposed to Conservative Jews who tend to live in less homogeneously Jewish enclaves.

So when I met Toni, it was a religio-cultural “oil and water” interaction (I guess, sometimes opposites do attract). My first shock: she wore a kippah (skullcap) all the time – something that back in the 1970s was unheard of (at least for me). The second shock: she put on tefillin (phylacteries) every morning! Ensuing discussions about what this was all about were not exactly shocking to me, but were certainly eye-opening. In a word – which I had read about, and only understood in very general terms – “feminism”.

It’s hard to say exactly why this deeply influenced my thinking. In retrospect, I can speculate about possible reasons: ancient Jewish law actually treated women quite well for the “norms” of that age; Judaism has always placed social justice at a high normative level; I never viewed girls as inferior (indeed, in the 8th grade at graduation I was voted Most Popular Boy, even though not one boy voted for me – I seemed to be one of the few boys who spoke to my classmate girls as equals); and finally, although my mother was never a “feminist”, she had several professional lives that were decidedly not of the “stay-at-home” garden variety: the first woman diamond cutter in Havana (back then, one of the world’s diamond centers), and in America an assistant fashion designer to one of Seventh Avenue’s leading designers, Bob McKintosh. So, while the idea of modern feminism was beyond my ken, the practice (and Jewish antecedent) perhaps smoothed the way to my “natural” acceptance of the whole basket.

I have been a strong feminist since (my revised surname is testament to that – a story for another day). Indeed, other than my wife Tami, without doubt Toni influenced me for the long term more than any other female in my life (Moms aren’t included in this regard). This is because her influence went far beyond teaching me what feminism is all about. Rather, the experience was an “education” in the real sense of the term. The main lesson: keep one’s eyes and ears open for other ways of thinking and living. Of course, this does not in any way mean that one has to (or should) accept and adopt those dissimilar perspectives and (sorry for this big word, but English doesn’t have a real parallel) different weltanschauungen.

What’s the value, then, of opening up to other ways of life? First, additive: we can learn about new things or other ways of thinking. Second, refractive: it’s a mirror to our own way of doing things, i.e. forcing us to consider whether everything we’re used to doing makes sense. And third, it improves our social intelligence – better understanding and tolerance of “strange” things that others might be saying/doing. For instance, different cultures have different conceptions of “social distance”: Latins (southern Europe and South America) tend to stand very close to each other when conversing; Anglos keep a significant distance. When the two get together without understanding the other’s culture, Latins consider Anglos to be weak and offputting for not getting up close, whereas the reverse has the latter considering the former to be “pushy” and aggressive for constantly “invading my space”.

Back to Toni and feminism. Why would I use the word “enemy” in the title of this essay? Because in Orthodox circles, anyone of another Jewish “sect” was (and certainly in Israel, still is) considered to be a dangerous “enemy” – the Conservative movement perhaps even more so than Reform Judaism, precisely because the former adheres to the same general basis: halakha. In any case, meeting such an “enemy” in Toni, not only showed me how absurd such theological demonization can be, but also constituted a life lesson in listening to different ideas, opinions and practices – even if ultimately one does not necessarily accept (parts of) that way of living.

The bottom line: in life when we come across a person who is “strange” or even seemingly “threatening” (our values, not physically) – what sociologists call “the other” – we should stop and think. Perhaps what we need to face is ourselves: the eneME?

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