What you see isn’t always what you get…

Post by Melissa

As an outwardly frum married couple* we often get asked “where are you from” or “when did you move here” with no pretense.  While they seem like simple questions,  the subtext (based on context and nonverbal cues) is that because the asker (another frum person/couple) has not seen us in their community, we must be new to town or just visiting.  Clearly in a city with a relatively small Orthodox community, they should know all religious people.

D and I are well aware that we do not fit the mold of a typical Conservative Jew, and that even more so we do not fit the average person’s idea of a typical Conservative Jew, so we are happy to smile and tell people briefly that we live near the traditional Conservative synogauge in town – and can just smile back at the looks and comments we receive. In fact, they can make great stories!

Once, at our local Kosher market/deli a woman stopped to ask us many questions and share all about the young adult community here thinking we were new.  After awhile it came out that we had lived here for a few years, and then where we live. Without missing a beat she says, “You live by X? So where do you daven (pray)?”  We still laugh about that moment.

More recently we had the honor of attending a simcha (joyous event) at a local Chabad house where some friends of ours regularly learn.  I had 5 women ask me where I was from, without it being part of a bigger conversation (and given the small number of women present, it was probably about 25% of the female attendees).  To each one I would answer briefly, as usual, and in all but one case the conversation ended with a confused and dismissive expression while the woman walked away from me.  The one woman who didn’t, I actually was able to engage in a nice conversation with and made a new friend to go shopping for stylish modest clothing with!  (Of note, D was only once asked the question and it was part of a conversation about how we knew the family who brought us.)

While we are used to these sorts of questions and the scrupulous looks in response to our answers, they still are irritating on the most basic level.  While we have learned to accept them as part of being outside a mold, our friends do not.  Those who we shared the funny run-in at the kosher market with were amazed that this happens to us, but figured in the context it was amusing.  Meanwhile, the friends who watched the questions at the simcha were appalled.  It became a larger topic of conversation later in which a variety of friends tried to understand why people would jump to conclusions and then not wait to hear more about the people who were so different from what they expected.  The best assessment was that they don’t know how to relate to someone who looks and talks like them, but is actually very different.

That said, I want to encourage you to take to heart the age old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover.” While you cannot avoid making a first impression, leave your judgements aside as you meet new people.  You never know what you can learn from a person, organization, or event which is different than you initially thought. You might be missing out on a new friend.

*Based on my wearing a skirt and sleeves with my head covered and D having a beard and knit kippah on the top of his head, and sometimes visible tzitzit.

{My apologies for the delay in posting. It is still a Melissa post even though its on Thursday…}


10 thoughts on “What you see isn’t always what you get…

  1. You have to admit that, relative to the total population of people attending Conservative temples, there aren’t many who are noticeably and consistently observant (or working at it). The movement didn’t even do much of a job of promoting such observance. So you all are an enigma. I wonder if the young, relatively observant couples are on the way to being the next incarnation of the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism? As you know, that couldn’t continue within the Conservative movement, and the rabbis in the group finally walked.

    • Oh yes, we are definitely an enigma! One of the things we look most forward to about D’s sojourn to Rabbinical School is being with other observant Conservative Jews. It is definitely more common amongst our peers than anywhere else in the movement, and is a big driving force behind the rise of egalitarian minyanim. The movement does a great job at teaching the youth, but then there is no place for them to go and feel welcomed and a part of community within it….
      I have to admit, the more I learn about the current Union for Tradional Judaism – the more I like it…. It could definitely have a rising place amongst young people.

  2. Well, but I think it has more to do with how you dress than being observant, because we’re observant Conservative Jews but I don’t get those questions – because even though I cover my hair at shul, I rarely look as frum as you do…

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  4. Melissa, this is your friend and wedding shomer here, checking in for blog-reading duty. I’m happy to discover Redefining Rebbetzin and have been catching up on some of your postings.

    As a member of your city’s “relatively small Orthodox community” I found this one humbling. If I too were to encounter couple, a woman dressed b’tznius with covered hair… along with a bearded, be-kippah’ed Yid in tznius I too would certainly assume they’re Orthodox, though the word frum would probably come to mind. In fact, even though you weren’t married at the time, I think that was my exact impression when I first met you and D at Tova’s for dinner.

    I think it’s because I’ve simply never met a conservative frum-looking couple who didn’t happen to be the rabbi and rebbetzin of a conservative shul.

    That said, yeah, assumptions aren’t fair and they sure can be irritating.

    I too encounter this on a lesser level. Lately I’ve been going with the penguin look (black velvet kippah, white shirt, dark slacks), which people would identify me as “Yeshivish”, or perhaps even “Chassidish” with the beard and small payos. However, I still like to change it up and wear a colorful kippa once in a while too. I recently bought a beautiful large purple one in the Holy Land and upon its debut on my head I was asked if I had gone Breslov. (I LOVE Rebbe Nachman, don’t get me wrong!) Donning another large white one I also picked up in Israel someone told me I looked with a dati-l’umi settler.

    I’m thinking, did you really just tell me that! Like, really!?

    Yep, people’s hashkafos are pre-judged all the time based solely on the color, size and style kippot they wear, and it can be irritating, but also amusing.

    A gutten moed!

    • You make an excellent point Adam. Though perhaps after your recent encounters with changing your kippah you will think twice before making an assumption.
      I will say that while you made the assumption when you met us, you were not shocked or appalled at the reaction as so many other members of our wonderful community are. That is a small but key difference in what makes you uniquely awesome.
      (While I am writing to you, I have to add that I now walk past your mom’s house often as my dear friends just moved into her little neighborhood.)

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