When attire brands us as religious
Two or three times a week I swim at a recreational center in Ra’anana. The locker room is a busy place, since it serves the whole complex (including the fitness and tennis centers).
I enjoy the banter and even contribute on occasion. As you can imagine, the talk over these last few months has often revolved around the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, with the vast majority of the guys in the locker room being on the side of the protesters.
While I share their view, I feel that the opposite is assumed—because of my tzitzit. Since I usually bike to “Country Ra’anana” (Israeli culture appropriates and transliterates just the first word of “country club”), in the locker room I am either wearing my biking helmet or am bareheaded, but I do often wear those ritual fringes.
This brands me as a religious person, and it also suggests, given the presence of all of the religious parties in the governing coalition, that I might be inclined to support what some are referring to as a “judicial coup.” I could be imagining all of this, I know; still, I have become incredibly adept at whipping off my tzitzit and ramming them into my locker.
The situation I face in the locker room is the situation, writ small, confronting many a “modern Orthodox” man in Israel.
Unlike the haredim, who want to distance themselves from general Israeli society and culture, the “moderns” seek to combine religion with a contemporary lifestyle. For some of the religious men in this “modern” category, religious attire, such as tzitzit and kipot, represents an obstacle to their acculturation and so they eschew it. These men are said to wear kipot shkoofot (“transparent yarmulkes”), and my son Ezra (31) happens to be one of them.
Ezra adds an additional reason for not wearing the kippa: he does not want to be the representative of religious people in Israel. “I don’t want someone to be thinking bad of me if I do something that a strictly Orthodox person wouldn’t do, such as giving a woman a friendly hug or jumping nude into a ma’ayan. I tell people that I’m on the religious spectrum. There are all sorts of variations today, from people who only wear a beret but never a kippa, to people who go bare-headed but wear tzitzit.”
It feels a little weird to be so self-conscious about Jewish attire in the State of Israel. To be sure, the calculus involved here is very different from the one facing Jews outside of Israel, where fear of antisemitism plays a big part. It’s hard to see anything positive, from a Jewish perspective, in the decision outside Israel to forgo Jewish identification in public, though it might be necessary.
In free societies, being Jewish at home and a “man” in the street (wearing nothing identifiably Jewish) often leads to complete assimilation. In Israel by contrast, where “the street” is a street in the Jewish state, there can definitely be an argument for not emphasizing religious differences outside the home in order to work together to build a better society.
I would like to think, though, that honest conversation is a great antidote to preconceived generalizations, and indeed there are many organizations in Israeli society that bring religious and secular people together for various purposes such as learning Jewish texts, cultural events, and social-action volunteering.
For my part, I will continue to wear my tzitzit, though you might have to look quickly before it gets put away, and I will always look to start kibitzing with the guy sharing my locker-room bench.
Teddy Weinberger is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.