Sunday, July 24, 2011

What's keeping me here?

It is early morning, the sweet and quiet moments before my children wake up, and I am standing in front of my bedroom mirror. On the wall next to me hangs a collection of colorful scarves. I study my outfit and select a coordinating scarf: intricate patterns of flowers and vines. My father bought it for me when his band was touring in Italy. I wrap it carefully around my head, covering my hair entirely.

I choose another scarf from the wall: black and grey swirls with silver threads shot through. I bought this one for myself. A friend returned from Israel with a selection of headcoverings to resell, and I chose it and wore it happily while living in New Jersey. In that community, where many women cover their hair with beautiful wigs, wearing that artsy-looking scarf made me feel pleasantly unique but a little conspicuous. Now that I have returned to Israel and settled in a more eclectic neighborhood, I fit right in with the funky scarf. Now I wear it and remember how I longed to go back to my homeland, and how I finally made the trip.

The patterns of the scarves clash and complement each other at once. They pick up the colors of my outfit, and I complete the picture with matching jewelry. I like what I see in the mirror, and then the thought arises in my mind.

I love covering my hair.

Not that I have made my peace with it; not that I am willing to sacrifice an aspect of my beauty for my religious values. I love this mitzvah.

I love it as a symbol of belonging. I belong to my husband, and he to me. My headcovering testifies to the exclusivity of our bond. I belong to my religious community, where other women are at this moment arising for the day and covering their heads with similar scarves.

I love it as a symbol of separateness. When I lived in Manhattan, my scarf marked me as a member of one of the many exotic ethnicities rushing past each other on the city streets. In Jerusalem, my scarf identifies me as a woman who adheres to the Torah’s laws and the norms of observant society. It identifies me as a married woman, engaged with the world but primarily focused inward, to my home and my husband.

Years ago, when my understanding of Hebrew was embryonic, my husband and I once spent Passover with friends who barely spoke English. So I made do and tried to follow the flow of conversation. I recall that my husband made some complaint about my compulsive scarf-buying habit, about the colorful collection taking over our bedroom walls. Our friend sympathized, and then responded with a sentence that I gladly understood and subsequently committed to memory: “Hamitpachat hee haketer shel ha-isha.” A headcovering is a woman’s crown.

He was just making an observation. It was an offhand comment, not particularly directed toward my husband or to me. But I never forgot it. In the years that followed, anytime I was challenged by covering up my lovely hair, by wearing another layer on a humid day, I would think “crown” and hold my head high.

And that gets to the heart of the third reason I love covering my hair. I love it because it is a mitzvah, an opportunity to connect with my Creator. I love that I wear a religious symbol over my head, the seat of my intellect. I love that I am chosen, as a Jewish woman, to bear the standard of married status. Mostly, I love that a means of connecting to my Creator can also be a vehicle for my creativity, my love of beauty and my self-expression.

Over a decade ago, when I was taking my first steps toward religious observance, I had a friend. Let’s call her Miriam. She was smart and hilarious. And she was also very pious and serious about religious issues. As we both grew towards traditional Judaism, she became increasingly conservative and reserved in the way she dressed and talked, increasingly insular in her approach to the outside world. I found her new style a little dull, but I also admired her. I wondered if I would be like her one day, if I could curb my subversive sense of humor, my attraction to color and sparkle in all its manifestations.

Years passed, and we parted ways for no particular reason. Miriam married and had children, and I eventually did as well. Recently, through the wonders of the Internet and a curiosity about people that might charitably be described as nosy, I found her again. I was in for a shock.

Miriam is no longer religious.

But she is smart and hilarious again. Her online writings crackle with her unique perspective and personality. Miriam, it would appear from the way she presents herself, is no longer pious or serious. She is vibrant and funny, the way she was when I first met her.

For weeks after finding Miriam, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I replayed every conversation we’d ever had. I searched her writing for clues. I pondered the events of her life, and tried to look for signs that this was coming. I wondered what drew her away from traditional Judaism, a path she’d seemed so committed to.

I have known several people over the years who have moved toward observance, only to be called back into their old lives. I have known people raised in lackluster Orthodox homes who have found a secular life more appealing and given up everything. But until I found Miriam, I had never known someone who had pursued becoming religious with such passion, commitment and consideration, began to raise a traditional family, and then changed course.

I realized, contemplating all this, that it wasn’t Miriam that I was worried about. It was me.

I grew up in a warm and supportive family. I’m close to my parents. I have held on to my closest friendships from my life before Orthodoxy. In many ways, I am quite immersed in the outside world and culture. This is all to say, social pressure is not what is keeping me Torah observant. I do not remain religious because I can’t imagine an alternative.

Social pressure is not what is keeping me Torah observantUntil I came across Miriam, I had never realized that whenever doubts arose in my mind, I would imagine that my exit from Orthodox life was blocked by my husband and children. I would think, “Oh, well. Too late now.” And I would push away the doubts.

Encountering my old friend, I saw that it wasn’t too late, that someone else could leave religious life and survive, even appear to thrive. So a new question arose in my mind: What is keeping me here?

The answer I found is not social pressure, or irreversible life decisions, or my responsibilities to the family I’ve created. The answer to why I am religious is conviction. I believe deeply and profoundly in the existence of God, in God’s passionate love and concern for me, and in the truth of the Torah. And until I found Miriam, I didn’t know that for sure.

Which leads me to ask the question in another way: What is keeping me here? The culture around me seems to beckon with opportunities and possibilities. My rational mind generates doubts and excuses. Even knowing the strength of my beliefs, I wonder what has the power to subdue my negative inclinations. How do I stay passionately and authentically connected to the life I’ve chosen, not merely go through the motions?

Thinking of Miriam, I realize that I can’t really understand what led her to where she is now. Each person’s inner life and outer world are so specific and unknowable. Yet I observe how much of herself she pours into her writing now that she is no longer trying to be pious. I wonder how much of herself she withheld trying to fit her own ideal of an Orthodox woman. What a waste; what might have been born if she had redirected those energies instead of suppressing them?

And so I let this be my wakeup call. I bring all of my talents and passions and perspectives to the One who gave them to me, and say, “Here. Help me channel my essence into Your mitzvot. Help me be close to You in a way that is personal and real.” When I live that way, the Torah and mitzvot change me and shape me. I’m not an Orthodox version of my original self, but a person being shaped and transformed by my relationship with the divine.

And this is why I take such pleasure in the mitzvah of covering my hair. When I look in the mirror and see my face framed by a brightly hued scarf, I see integration. I see my desire to do God’s will, and my drive to express my individuality, unified in a single image. I understand that my life is authentic: that I am deeply myself, and that I am always changing and moving upward.

This post originally appeared at


Fun with Ima said...

Hi Chaya- I just wanted to tell you how much I loved this post. It brought me to tears. Very true and inspiring. Thanks for writing and please keep it up! Avital

Lori said...

Absolutely beautiful, just like you Chaya, inside and out...

AR said...

I look forward to each new piece you write. Please keep it up!


Sina said...

Thank you for your beautiful, inspiring writings. You express your thoughts so eloquently with humor and wit. I love reading them!

breslevsista said...

I thought this was very moving. I was going to write about how hard it is for me to cover my hair still, but as I was writing I realised that I enjoy it, too! It's actually the matching modest clothes that are difficult for me... not the modesty itself, but the style limitations. I miss my jeans ..... and my bare legs, and shirts that aren't buttoned up to heaven ...... sigh.

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