There’s an Orthodox shul somewhere close by in the neighbourhood of my Conservative one–I’ve never been there, and I’m not sure where it is, and I only know it exists because I see the Black Hats wandering in the neighbourhood at the same time as I’m heading to services.
I’m gonna hypothesize here that a lot of converts have a bad habit of staring at (or surreptitiously watching) anyone who’s visibly, observantly Jewish. Especially if (like me) you grew up in a place where there just were none around, but maybe even if you didn’t. Seeing a man in a kippa means that I will be subtly watching him until he’s out of my immediate range. I still pay close attention to the other people shopping around me in the kosher section. It just always represented something I was relentlessly curious about, hungry for. In Catholicism, one of the reasons for the Roman collar and the religious habit is to make people remember that the spiritual world exists, to provoke that hunger if possible. Visibility.
And added to that, with the Black Hats, there’s the more general curiosity about an insular group. They look out of place next to everyone else on the street, they don’t acknowledge me if I give a little shabbat shalom nod as I pass them on the sidewalk, and they make me think of Chaim Potok novels, which were one of my first introductions to Jewish literature. They’re also just visually interesting–there’s always a few in the crowd who are dapper and make the uniform look good, and some young guys who don’t really have beards yet but are trying hard, and some who are a mess of flapping coat panels and fringes and poorly fitted trousers. And the old men look like ghosts.
I usually wear a hamsa necklace, and when I’m on my way to or from shul I wear a little crocheted beret, but not a kippa. Lately I’ve started to sometimes wear a Magen David instead of the hamsa, as a more recognizable symbol, and I actually feel a little self-conscious about it. Not unpleasantly so, but I wonder if people notice it, if it makes them assume different things about me than they otherwise might have, if (as teachers always told us before we left on field trips) I’m “being a good ambassador.” Strangers seeing me on the bus or at the grocery store will see this visual cue and assume that I’m Jewish, and that’s new for me. If I were on display to the degree that the yeshivish guys are, I think I’d be pretty neurotic about it, but maybe their thoughts and motives are different.
So I guess I shouldn’t be staring. Sorry, bros. But the other night, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I was walking home from shul by myself. It’s a long walk, it’s not always well-lit, and really it’s probably not a good idea for me to take it after dark. But as I turned onto the main road, this bunch of yeshivish guys were walking ahead of me. Wherever they were headed, it was the same route as I was taking, so I trailed behind them as we walked through side streets, alongside city parks, under an overpass. I would have been very nervous doing that with a crowd of secular young men–if I did it at all. I’m not someone who worries a lot about this, compared to other women I know, and a few other dudes on the street won’t faze me, but a bunch of guys who know each other? That’s trouble. Even if all they do is yell something. But I knew these guys wouldn’t touch me, and they wouldn’t yell dirty shit at me, and I felt safe until we parted ways.