Sunday, May 07, 2006

Beauty and the Beast

She stood shivering and I wanted to lend her my sweatshirt. Nights are still cold in Jerusalem, and I craved the heartwarming "kol areiveim ze l'ze" smile that politely rejects, then smiles, then accepts my small act of hesed. But I also knew that such an act was an impossibility- that inside my head, a black-on-white poster of social mores told me "this is not done." Young, married, Haredi women don't take hooded sweatshirts from strangers.

Waiting at my bus stop, I realized that something was very out of place about this Haredi women next to me. She was strange all alone, shivering in the night- clutching her covered arms to herself, shifting her weight like it would somehow make her stammering legs stop- and at the same time quite charming. Oh! How silly of me not to realize! Of course she stands out of place! She is, dare I say, beautiful.

You see, the #1 Bus is an observatory: a place where boys that go to HaKotel watch Haredi Jews . . . go to the Koysel. I'm told that its best to avoid flash photography.

My time in the Jew Zoo- both the #1 and Israel as a whole- has revealed the utter lack of aesthetic beauty within Ultra-Orthodox society. The neighborhoods are famously drab, a piece of Eastern Europe better left behind. The men, rounded by a life-long Shalosh shedos, or bent and crooked by years of study, fail by western standard of masculinity. A recent article in Ha'aretz (I know where to go for Haredi-bashing, thank you) noted the recent findings of an Israeli sociologist: Haredi men avoid confrontation, are trained not to raise their voice, hold themselves close-legged, and learn to view sports and physical activity as Greco-Roman evils. Such is not the way of Western man; such is not the way of beauty.

On the other end of the gender gap, perhaps the most basic beauty of them all, Woman, is wrapped away behind a code of social reservation and navy suit-sets. Despite how most every aspect of their life is dictated by sex, the apparent goal for the Haredi woman is a sort of refined, regal masculinity. O how they dress neatly!: cropped, plain, and in moments of gasp-like daring, checkered. Can we even invent a better image than the bride- the paradigm of womanhood- shaving off her hair- that sweet-smelling, flowing symbol of all that feminity has to offer (boys like me). FOR THE LOVE OF G-D! Do something real and heartfelt, not held back by the all-powerful cultural bubble! Reveal but a hint of sexuality! Let beauty run like wine pouring down a kiddush fountain. For until you do, we can most safely say: Haredim are ugly.

But uglier than Haredim, is the American, Western, Hellenistic, and . . . modern (as in Orthodox) need for beauty. How much of the stigma- in every non-Haredi stream of Judaism- stems from this simple fact? Even if the hate is founded in the worlds of idea and policy, MO aesthetic revulsion is a constant reminder of our self-righteous inherent superiority. I think myself not nearly crass enough to voice it, but the classic piece of propraganda- the oily, pock-mocked face, with the nose of a crook and the facial hair of a yak- pops to mind upon nearly every Kotel visit. Maybe those anti-semites are on to something. Granted, we've brought charts and graphs of every moral argument and source of tension that lies between us. But rarely do cold political disputes translate into such negative feelings.

Negative feelings?! Hatred!! Hear my story: I detest the dogmatic approach to questions not necessarily Halakhic, despise the disregard for scientific and historic truths, and loath how the randomly selected culture of Eastern Europe ala nineteenth century has been codified into a religious marker, Humrasized ad infinitum . . . but, alas, these questions of religio-intellectual perspespective do not satisfy.

For whichever way Haredim perhaps sacrifice intellectual honesty- I don't hate the spiritual, fundamental, simple faith of so many!
For my personal, unlearned opinion that they distort G-d's word- I don't hate Reconstructionists!
For whatever political or economic harm my mind can invent- I don't hate the average Palestinian!

I've been struggling to cut out this malignant growth on my Neshama. When I pass Haredi kids playing like rats in the street, I replace the velvet with srugi and mush under the cuteness. When a skinny young bachur provides an accidental hip-check on the way through security, I see through his black hat to a purple beret and immediately understand that sometimes, people are in a rush. When I think of Haredim as selfish, "mitzvah" hungry machines too obsessed with their own Olam Habaah to remember concepts like Hesed or community, I try to focus on the poll recently published in the Jerusalem Post: the highest level of volunteerism is found . . . in the Haredi population. (If we worry that Haredim outdo our "Dati," it would be an absolute disaster if they also better our "L'umi.") When I think about the money extorted from the pocketbooks of taxpayers to the Hadar Ochel of the Mir, I remember how sit-down restaurants don't exist in Bnei Brak- afterall, how can you consciously sit and pleasure-bait your money away? And lastly, when I fail to find beauty in the trash-scarred streets of Meah Shaarim, I ask myself, "who cares?"

Manly Torah

Tamar Ross' book on Feminism and Orthodoxy has tainted my religiously-inspired, Torah-motivated, "Shanah Bet Material" mind. Like any good Chakira, my entire world is effected- and explained- by this new perspective. Now that I've been enlightened to the male-dominated, male-focused, androcentric religion that is Judaism, I can't stop but see the same phenomenon in the Yeshiva system as a whole. Three patterns that put the man in Yeshiva mannerisms:

Beit Medrash Envy: Size matters.

Every time a camp or YULA friend visits the HaKotel Beit Medrash, the first reaction is always the same. Responding to the question that everyone's testerone seems to ask, they announce to the world in their most macho . . . "Oh, ours is bigger." The first time I experienced this ritual I thought it strange, unnecessary- immature. Now I just think it instinctive. As the rush of chemical activity came to its peak and enzyme reacted to fired nerve ending, my chest expanded and I looked my competition in the eye: "No way. Mine is much bigger!"
Be not mistaken:
Reishit- You're like HaKotel's little brother. Eretz HaTzvi- Say hello to the Alpha Male. Netiv Aryeh- I guess there is enough room for the both of us in the Old City. Gush- Hmm, Its hard to tell. You don't really appreciate the Rumpa until you've been back there for some bittul. Tzorich Iyun.

The Hierarchy
Nothing beats the "my Rebbe" story. We don't want to hear about the Vilna Gaon, or Reb Moshe, or any Hacham or Baba- but if its a Rabbi Tarragin in KBY, or Rav Elon in Mercaz . . . its like a drug. I guess that impressionable Shanah Aleph's like myself just want to feel part of a hierarchy: I want to know who is above me and then see them pushed higher and higher by the stories surrounding them; for if they are Gadol material- well, God damn it- I mean, B'ezras ha'shem yisbaruch, so am I!
Which explains the tingly feeling in the pit of my neshama in the presence of a rebbe's own rebbe stories. (Heretofore referered to as the Super-rebbe.) Every tale of the Super-rebbe justifies my existence: the Beard and Glasses whom I struggle to emulate has his own Super- Beard and Glasses (albeit super-whiter and super-thicker) looming in the impossible distance. The journey is not futile and the system does work- by putting in enough time, energy, and most importantly rebbe stories, I can one day be the Super-rebbe to a new generation of competition-minded talmidim.

Makom Identity: Learning isn't about the knowledge in your head, but the pricetags on your table.

Each row in the Beit Medrash communicates dozens of silent social messages. The right sefer informs the pack of your strength and status (and, with G-d's help, a front row seat in shiur), whereas even the wrong writing utensil pencils "Ramaz" all over you. In effect, a entire language of unspoken words indentifies each talmid and places him into one of the many subdivisions within the Hesder beit medrash. A guide to the man behind the bookshelf:
Mikraot G'dalot- I'm interested, motivated, and wonderfully naive. My goal for Shanah Aleph is "to learn how to learn." However, I don't know which seferim to buy, and there's no way I can really learn all this. Two volumes on Nach . . .what was I thinking. What is a Chagi? Maybe I'll get to it after Smicha.

Tehillim- I'm the nicest guy on this row. When my mother sends cookies- everybody gets. There is a special place in Heaven reserved for people like me. Also, I send out mass emails.

Shita Mekubetzet- That's right, I went on NCSY Kollel. I remember things from 11th Grade shiur; does that intimidate you? I have a large assortment of blue and white patterned shirts and they all match phenomenally well with my black srugi WITH srugi stripe, thank you. My long term goals include several photo appearances in YU paraphenalia and getting psyched before applying for the Torah scholarship.

Moreh Nevuchim (in English)- I am going to have to know these things when I attend the Ivy League university of my choice. Now, it's been said that I keep secular books at my Makom. Like Moreh Nevuchim, they were purchased on a date at Barnes and Noble.

Full-set Orot- It was either purchasing these books, or enlisting in Tzahal. I figured this was the more tzioni choice. See, most sforim are black, or navy- can you say HAREDI! But not my full-set of Orot; she's as white as my Shabbat srugi. If only Rav Kook wrote in English.

Dozen-volumed Shas- Because I bought it, it's like I learned it. Everytime I look at this baby, I am overwhelmed by the sweetest of Shanah Aleph feelings: fake accomplishment. Afterall, if I hadn't accomplished so much, would I buy a Shas? I chose the one that's broken into so many volumes because they will be easier to carry when I start learning while waiting for the morning bus to the Mir. Oh, the maarei makomot calls for a Gemara in Krisus . . . this is gonna be sweet!