Haredi and Me: Crossing cultural barriers

I wanted to tell the haredi father walking in our neighborhood: I don't live the way you live but I am your sister.

"The highest expression of love of creatures… which must always fill every recess of our soul… should be love of humans, and must encompass all of humanity." - Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook I'm walking down Hebron Road at 9:30 on a Saturday morning. It's early July, the Jerusalem sun is burning and I'm feeling warm in my shorts and sleeveless top - both hand-me-downs from my sister-in-law, who loses a bit of her wardrobe each time she visits Israel. (Whether I should be wearing such clothes in my 50s is a subject for another column. To date, comfort has trumped vanity.) My husband and I have just taken a walk on the Sherover Promenade in East Talpiot. He turned off to go to synagogue and I am continuing toward home. As I near a stop light, I see three children and their father across the wide boulevard, walking at a fast clip in the opposite direction. I tighten my grip on Lazlo's' leash. The two girls are wearing long dresses, the boy long sleeves and long pants, and the father a black hat and the Shabbat suit of a haredi man. I look at the family and think, if the light changes at the right time and our paths cross, I will smile and greet them with a Shabbat shalom. I know that to them, I am inappropriately dressed, to put it mildly. I grew up in sunny Southern California, 20 minutes from the beach. Like everyone else I knew, I wore shorts and sleeveless shirts, sundresses and, on our weekly trips to the beach, bathing suits. This was, and still is, the most natural way for me to dress. If I do take a chance and greet them, will the haredi family respond in kind? Or will the father scowl at my clothes and turn away? Will the children look down so as not to see me? And then I think: Maybe I should save them the potential embarrassment and not say anything; pretend I don't see them. Then they can pretend not to see me and all will be fine. Or will it? Several weeks ago, at our neighborhood's Carlebach-style minyan, I was flipping through my lavender Bible (a gift from two buddies) when a map of the 12 tribes and their positions around the ohel mo'ed, the tent of meeting, caught my eye. I thought: We once knew exactly who we were and where we belonged. Like the Jews of Ethiopia, B'nai Israel in the desert and probably for generations afterward knew their genealogy. They knew to which tribe they belonged, knew who their cousins were to the ninth degree and knew their place on a tree we trace to a seed called Abraham. I wanted to tell the haredi father walking in our neighborhood: I am your sister. I, too, am a twig on the same huge, beautiful tree. I don't live the way you live or dress the way you dress, but I try (and sometimes fail, of course) to be a good person - and that too is obeying the laws of Torah. That, too, is in tune with God's desires. As I go to cross Derech Hevron, the light on my half of the boulevard turns green. The children, now a good block in front of their father, are just approaching the intersection. What will I say if our paths cross? The light at the median turns red and I wait as the children, with their father now close behind, cross the side street and continue on their way. By the time I reach the corner, they are gone.