I love tzitzis and glitter and skateboard helmets, I love them especially all at once

“Where are my presents?”
“You got your present.”
“What present?”
“That the Hanukkah Man gave you.”
“That thing from last year?”
“I’ve been gypped by the Hanukkah Man!”

So, I came across this picture:


Those were good times, yet terrible times. They were the best of times and the worst of times.

I look at myself and think: “Why didn’t they ship me to hadar immediately?” Then I think: “How did I get to a place like w&m?” Then I think: “How did w&m get someone like me?”

Want to know what those pins say? They say: “Moshiach, we want moshiach now” and “Tzitzis, we want moshiach now.” They were a gift, OK? (Once, a guy in Prospect Heights saw one of my pins and said, “So, you want moshiach, huh?”)

I don’t try to be eccentric, you know? I am a walking collection. For instance, my mom got me a skateboard helmet for my birthday and so I was sitting there like derp listening to Matisyahu wearing my skateboard helmet. And now I have glitter because the “hanukkah man” aka my mom gave it to me aka she re-gifted it from when I didn’t want it last hanukkah. Also, I collect stickers on the back of my computer. Look closely and you can see a real live leopard.



I don’t want tzitzis to be a fashion accessory. I don’t want it to just be a part of my collection of things I seem to acquire. But I know from experience that–unless you’re a halachically jewish orthodox man–there’s absolutely no threshold you can cross where you won’t still be questioning your motives. (I say orthodox cause it’s not really expected so much outside of orthodoxy.)

Honestly, I have no way of knowing whether I’m just trying to have a fashion accessory, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. When I look at a woman with tzitzis I don’t think: “She just wants a fashion accessory.” I think she must be really dedicated to put herself out there like that. I look at that picture of me and I think “Why was I so hard on myself?!” If it were someone else in my situation, I would have judged them favorably. If they showed that kind of dedication, I wouldn’t have done all that, like, pilpul. I wouldn’t care what their lineage was, either.

I’ve had friends who consider themselves gentiles converting to judaism, and I’ve had friends who consider themselves jews converting to judaism. I think the way you see yourself makes you see your conversion quite differently. Maybe it was being in new york, but I don’t think you can dismiss subjective experience so easily anymore. There’s no “official answer,” which I was in denial about for a long time. Of course, though, not having a right answer doesn’t mean there are no wrong answers. I’ve known people who wanted to convert–who believed they had jewish lineage, even–but whose resolve and tenacity I doubted. Oh, don’t think I don’t still judge people! If someone told me they wanted to wear tzitzis and then in the next breath told me they’ve decided to follow Jesus/the Buddha/whoever, I will probably doubt their dedication.

But I also have friends who are converting, whom I wouldn’t doubt for one second, and whom I treat as jewish.

This, so far, is working better for me in everyday life than my outdated system of judging people solely by halachic standards as if I were their conversion rabbi. A conversion rabbi, of course, is concerned with the integrity of the system, but this is sometimes to the detriment of a person’s psychological well-being. I know this well. I can’t know which way of looking at people is the right one. Maybe I really am compromising the integrity of the system. But if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, all we can do is guess. And if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, we can’t exactly feel bad about making a best guess. That goes for anything, really.

And that’s all well and good.

I don’t know what all this means for me, though. I don’t know my own motivations most of the time, but I tend to believe that I should (like most of us, I presume?) And so I analyze it to death, a sound and fury signifying nothing. If I wanted to wear my tzitzis again, it’d have to go beyond “which mitzvos a non-jew can do” and “what does patrilineal mean philosophically.” It would have to go deeper. I’d have to enter a whole new system. I know I can’t be orthodox, and I know I can’t be conservative, reform, or recon either. It’s kind of an open field right now. Everything is free for the taking. I could be anything. I could be renewal (I’m not). I wish I didn’t have to convert (and therefore pick one…currently it’s RCA and currently I don’t want to change that). I wish I could just be. You know, in the margins. Like I do. I don’t feel like a convert. I don’t want to continue acting like I’m converting. I don’t want to be a gentile. I don’t want to be a righteous gentile. I davened like a jew. I learned gemara like a jew. I went off the derech like a jew. I came back like a jew.

Something has to change here.

Hello Tzitzis Double Feature Sunday

[6/9/2012 11:58:19 PM] proteinprotection: wtf is ‘ultra orthodox’ exactly
[6/9/2012 11:58:28 PM] max elstein keisler: the ppl around you
[6/9/2012 11:58:35 PM] proteinprotection: people just say that word blithely like it’s nbd
[6/9/2012 11:58:40 PM] proteinprotection: they don’t seem ultra
[6/9/2012 11:58:45 PM] max elstein keisler: chassidish and yeshivish
[6/9/2012 11:58:45 PM] proteinprotection: like i know they’re who people are talking about
[6/9/2012 11:58:51 PM] proteinprotection: but they can’t be ultra, they can’t be!
[6/9/2012 11:58:57 PM] max elstein keisler: well youve frummed out
[6/9/2012 11:58:58 PM] proteinprotection: they’re so innocuous!
[6/9/2012 11:59:05 PM] proteinprotection: BUT I LOVE THEM
[6/9/2012 11:59:08 PM] proteinprotection: how can they be ultra
[6/9/2012 11:59:15 PM] max elstein keisler: i think yeshivish is a bit less crazy than chassidish also
[6/9/2012 11:59:25 PM] proteinprotection: i saw a fur hat earlier 2day
[6/9/2012 11:59:30 PM] proteinprotection: just one though
[6/9/2012 11:59:45 PM] proteinprotection: I can’t believe my people are ultra

First, let me outline the reasons why women don’t wear tzitzis, i.e. why they haven’t caught on, particularly in Brooklyn. Particularly in Flatbush. Some of these guys are pretty open about the fact that they’re wearing a wool TK, evidenced by the fact that they are wearing it on the outside of their clothes. Others have one that’s longer than their actual shirt, so the whole piece of fabric seeps out from the bottom. Others have tzitzis that they obviously haven’t changed in like 30 years, and still others have tzitzis down to their ankles. I think all of this is rather endearing. Still, I could see how many upstanding women wouldn’t think it so. I don’t think the reason it didn’t catch on with women is because of the halacha (women still sit in a sukkah), or because it would interfere with everyday tasks (you can easily tuck that crap in). I think it’s because it “doesn’t look nice.” This, I suppose, is why some men even here don’t wear them out, and why lots of others put them in their belt loops. I also happen to suspect that another reason they didn’t catch on is because getting them out of the way to go to the can would be a whole ordeal for women.

Men seem a lot more freewheeling about these kinds of things; about whether it “looks nice” or not. And anyway, when you can’t just wear a button-down shirt every day, the fashions make it almost impossible. How are you going to wear a bunch of wool/cotton under a tight-fitting shirt? Under two other layers? Women would have to change their whole wardrobe.

Next, let me outline the reasons why women shouldn’t wear tzitzis, particularly in Brooklyn. Particularly in Flatbush. You might get killed. I see why they haven’t caught on, but I also see why they won’t be catching on for a while. I mean, death is quite a threat. I don’t even want to think about the consequences. It’s too bad too; one of the mysteries of life, why that’s a bigger deal than women not covering their hair, for instance. There are lots of non-observances that are handled pretty well by everyone else, but extra observances! Extra! There must be an ulterior motive. So basically, my advice is women shouldn’t wear tzitzis, particularly in Brooklyn, particularly in Flatbush, not because it’s morally indefensible (indeed, people have tried to prove it is, to the extent that women are allegedly “doubly exempt” and things like that), but because you might get killed.

“But,” you say, “what about Manhattan? Surely people are more accepting there.” I suppose people would be more accepting, but only because the ratio of gentiles is higher there. And truly, the threat of death can follow a person through different boroughs. Nonetheless, there are also Orthodox Jews there, and they, I suspect, will give you a death glare. Sometimes they walk in pairs, so double death glare. Nothing could be worse. Moreover, what if you get on the subway train? Starting in Lower Manhattan, you never know who might get on that train! It could be a guy reading tehillim. It could be a pack of seminary girls. It could be a guy with a “Lubavitch Headquarters” gym bag.

You definitely have to be a certain type of person to assuage the overwhelming fear for your life that could come from such encounters! Many women are not this type of person. And why do all that for something that “doesn’t look nice”?

Tzitzis sighting in: COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG, VA!

I was just in the bookstore, minding my own business, looking for some new headphones, when all of a sudden I see this guy with a white shirt and black pants and the first thing I think is “that must be an employee. Maybe he can help me find some headphones.” Then I see crazy strings hanging out the sides of his shirt, so obviously I think to myself “Must be some kind of employee’s apron.” So I went on my way.

Back downstairs, near the register, I spotted the same guy! It couldn’t be! But then I got closer. He looked a bit like Rabbi Ham, the Orthodox rabbi/possible Aish rep, so I got in closer (I know you think this sounds creepy but I’m good like that). No! It wasn’t Rabbi Ham! It was just some tourist! And behold, I spotted kippa! And behold, I looked closer and I confirmed, his employee’s apron was tzitzis.

Now, this is exciting to me because remember where I live. Recall that our rabbi once told me “You are the only person in Williamsburg wearing tzitzit.” Here! Here! I thought to myself: Why would orthos choose Williamsburg, VA? Why would anyone? Moreover, why did I put my Rashi sefer away? We needed to bond! I wanted to “accidentally” drop it and be like “oh, b”h it didn’t fall into a puddle,” then the guy would be like, “Oh let me help you” and that would be the beginning~

But alas, I just walked away speedily hoping he would see my WE WANT MOSHIACH NOW pin and then he would feel at ease knowing that others exist. Here. In Williamsburg, VA.

Then I glanced at his friend/wife/lady companion pushing a stroller, and naturally, my delight turned to anguish. Because I can’t just have a happy moment. Because I am a feminist. And being me, I wasn’t depressed about the normal thing. I wasn’t depressed over the stroller. I was mostly depressed because that lady looked so utterly plain that I was quite disappointed in the fact that had that guy not been there, I would have taken her for a regular lady. But seriously, it was so regular. That guy had like a cool uniform. But obviously ladies are too “spiritual” to “need” to wear a white shirt and black pants and tzitzis and the employee’s uniform etc. Just wearin’ a plain grey pencil skirt, no big deal. Men always get to look like they’re a part of something. (I also hate ladies’ business fashions.) Even ladies’ sheitels, the most interesting part, makes hair look SO NORMAL?!?! (Or as my sister would say, “Caucasian.”)

Maybe it was exacerbated by the fact that I’d spent the morning before class ruminating on why ladies are so regular all the time. Like, even in science, they say that psychologically men are more likely to be “at the extremes,” so that’s why there are more men with autism than women, and likewise more geniuses who are men than who are women. They’re just there to take care of babies and people. It’s like when you put my stupid cat somewhere she’ll just lay in whatever position you put her in. A lady’s just like “oh a baby, let me just whip out my maternal instinct.” But men have varying reactions to things like babies. You can never tell. But with ladies, you always know you’re going to get a reaction out of the following things: Dogs, babies, and marriage. It’s just…regular.

And then, cause I’m kind of an asshole just in general, I thought to myself, “I wonder if that lady would even be fun to hang out with. I bet if I was a man I’d hang out with that guy and talk about stuff like the sugya and our bright futures, but if I hung out with that lady, it’d probably be all about lending me some recipes and I’d be like “let’s go daven” and she’d be all “oh, I don’t daven,” and I’d be all “so the daf today, man” (LOL @ me reading the daf) and she’d be all “oh I don’t read the daf” and I’d be like “You are just a regular lady! I can’t relate to you.” I can’t relate to most women, anyway.

But anyway, the whole spotting left me feeling violated. It was kind of horrible seeing actual Orthodox people knowing I was just playing the game. Man or not, I know we wouldn’t have actually bonded over anything. I’d start stuttering and then he’d be like “Are you OK, little Reform girl?” And then they’d go home and have real Passover and I’d go home and try to learn that thing where you remove the chametz with a candle and try not to feel totally lame but do it anyway.

Mitzvah as protest

So, some people say that women shouldn’t wear a tallit because it’s a “sign of haughtiness.” In modern times, I think this translates to “they’re doing it for feminism!!!” This need to be doing it for the “right reasons” stems of course from women’s exemption, because no one asks men what their reasons are, so long as they do it.

I don’t know enough to know whether exemption always requires a “good reason” in order to start taking it up voluntarily; I don’t know why it suddenly applies to tzitzit only. But a certain rabbi I know said that tzitzit is a mitzvah “incumbent on the person” that is “activated when wearing the garment.” So that rules out my idea that the mitzvah is in the garment, which would make it not time-based and thus not-exempt. Too easy.

I wonder how it is that “not doing it for the right reasons” make a woman-exempted mitzvah like tzitzit null and void. What are the right reasons? Why does there have to be a “right reason” to do a mitzvah? (And can you do one accidentally?) And, is “feminism” the only “wrong reason”? What if, say, you were protesting Israel Apartheid Week? That seems pretty righteous.

I’m protesting, by the way. I’m protesting that, but I’m also protesting something my rabbi said. We were walking down the street a couple of days ago (we’re cool like dat), and he was like “people keep looking at my kippah!!” (so cute. love the rabbi) and I was like “wow, that’s weird, no one looked at my tzitzit when I used to wear them!” And he said “why’d you stop wearing them?” and I said “it felt like I was appropriating.” And he said “you know, sometimes things like that are better in theory than in practice.” Then he talked about how he only wears his kippah “on the job” because the idea of wearing it everyday “doesn’t always work in reality” and he may or may not have said “you’ll learn as you get older…” He said he doesn’t always want to be the token Jewish guy when he’s just chilling in public. Then I said “isn’t that when it’s most important to be Jewish?” or something to that extent. Then I forgot the rest because we crossed a street.

It made me wonder though: Is this really one of those things? Like, it was getting pretty inconvenient I’m not going to lie. Is the world even ready for such a thing? But I don’t want to think of mitzvot that way: “better in theory than in practice.” So I brought back the tzitzit in protest of this idea. It’s like saying to myself “this simply can’t be true and I will prove it false.” I think it’s quite righteous. It’s like when your mom is all “I bet you can’t eat that broccoli” and you’re all “oh no you don’t, I will eat that broccoli like you don’t even know.”

I’ve always had a problem conflating “what people think” with “what is right.” I really don’t know if what I’m doing is “right” or really just “appropriating” something that doesn’t belong to me, but really the fact is that no one–no one–around me is worried about my patrilinealness. Like, even the Orthodox rabbi here probably wouldn’t say anything about it, even though I’ve told him. Aish even accepted me into their Jerusalem Online University program (yes, W&M has Aish reps on campus?!?!) I’m looking for conflicts that seriously aren’t there right now. So I’m not appropriating. And I’m protesting that too.

I’ve started getting back on the derech, but I’m trying to do it right this time. It was getting really muddled last semester with “what people thought” and “omg what’s more important, community or halacha” and “omg am I doing this for the right reasons” and “omg am I appropriating” and “omg denominations” and “omg conversion” but all that is not even important and I just have to realize. I feel like plain old reading the תרי”ג מצות and going to Torah study helps me and everyone around me more than my navel-gazing does. As Matisyahu says, “Fear nobody but His Majesty. My spirit, you retrieved. For you I wait silently, it seems that you believe in me.”

One of these things is not like the others / One of these things doesn’t belong

Crossposted at New Voices

Did you know? Hillel elections are coming up, and as per planned, I’m running. They’re a mess, as far as clubs are concerned. I even talked to our rabbi a few days ago (under the guise of interviewing him for our newspaper), and he confirmed that our Hillel is a “Jewish affinity club” and that I should run etc. It made me feel pretty validated. I called my friend and we came up with a game plan—her idea being to get enough friends to run to corner the market and overturn Hillel leadership and make it great. It’s all very cloak-and-dagger.

But then I started worrying about our current Hillel president and her possible dislike of me. Why? Oh, I know. She hates my tzitzis. I notice these things. Every time we go to a Hillel event, she tends to stare at them like they’re snakes and I’m not really sure if she’s aware of her utter distaste or what, but my friend suggested that possibly she—and other “Hillel Jews,” as I’ve taken to calling them—can’t handle someone who’s both religious and not a crazy Haredi, i.e. it’s outside her sphere of knowledge. To them, you must either be secular or, well, crazy. I did indeed overhear a Hillel member explaining to a non-Jew, “Reform and Orthodoxy are basically two separate religions.” Reform, of course, being the normal one…and Orthodox being the unexplainable one, possibly involving witchcraft.

This explanation makes some sense to me, since the culture here is chiefly secular and I might even venture plainly anti-religious—”We can’t do that; that’s too Jewish!”—the same Hillel president who said that “We’re not like the religious groups on campus. We’re a different sort of group.” It doesn’t get plainer than that. Anyone who is “too Jewish” is either Haredi or insane, and in any case just not someone to be reckoned with.

I remember at the beginning of this year I was worried that my appearance would bar me from making friends. I mean you enter a college in the middle of the summer when everyone’s wearing shorty shorts and you’re wearing tzitzis, you start to become aware of things. But anyway, I’m realizing this is probably a longer-lasting struggle than how Hillel feels about tzitzis. The same friend and I went to some fancy restaurant a couple of days ago, and for this scenario just assume the fact that I’m unaccustomed to fanciness in the first place, so I was wearing jeans etc. and gawked at all the people who actually put the napkins on their freaking laps, but anyhow, behold.

I usually say my brachas and stuff and not feel self-conscious, because I don’t really hang out in fancy joints anyway, and I’m not too worried about what tourists in the coffee shop think of me, because they all love W&M students and I feel like we’re part of the scenery naturally anyway. But when you’re in a fancy place you kind of feel like you’re on display. You have to be decorous. You have to wear your napkin right and order right and so on and so forth. And it seems as if anything out of the ordinary should warrant a big spotlight, so yes when you whip out that bentcher the whole world is watching. Same for asher yatzar which I will never stop saying. It’s just not decorous. It’s like, save that stuff for home, you know? Oh, and tuck in your tzitzis because it might hit someone in the eye.

It’s odd, but I can see, even in 2011, how the striving for decorous reform in the 19th century easily led to a patterning of Protestant forms of worship and behavior. Where religion is inward and seemly and, well, no cause for fuss. It’s so easy to be like, “Oh no. Not here. It’s time to be dignified.”

Pirate at shul today

Before I begin, can anyone fill me in on what the following person is wearing?

Looks like shoestrings. What are you trying to pull? (I otherwise feel really strangely attached to this cover.)

Anyway, so like this morning at approximately 9:35 AM this scraggly old man with a white beard and an eyepatch walked in through the rabbi’s special door into the sanctuary. He sat down near the front, and took out his yellowed tallis which seemed rather special but I couldn’t tell why. The rabbi apparently was a little intrigued as well and went over to talk to him, and I could hear the occasional “ken, ken” from the pirate so I thought maybe he’s just from Israel.

But it only just began. He was very enthusiastic. His “amen”s were the loudest, his bowing was the lowest, and more importantly he started shouting “emet!” after every aliyah. Oh, he was given two, by the way—the kohen and the levite’s. He hobbled to the Torah which made me suspect he might have a pegleg, which I couldn’t see but you know I looked for it. His bracha was distinctly American and with a great gusto—boy, was he glad to be there. The rabbi said something else to him and he said “ken, ken” again…but everything else, if I heard correctly, was in English. So I thought maybe he was just trying to practice his Hebrew.

And then when he got back to his seat, one guy shook his hand, as people usually do after an aliyah, but then the pirate turned to face the congregation and waved, as if to say “Thank you, thank you all”! So I thought maybe he’s just Renewal or something.

When they did hagbah, he held out his tzitzit string, which was incredibly worn-out-looking, and I looked closer and realized just what was so different about it. He had a techelet! I’d never seen it before, not in the flesh! He had this strange fancy knotting system which consisted of three rotations of bands of knots and bands of just string…it seemed really unusual. But I thought maybe he’s just Sephardic or something.

Oh! Oh! I’ve found it:

Karaite strings. Karaite?

But this is where it gets interesting. We started reading those English readings, like “Prayer for the Country”, “Prayer for the Congregation”, and other readings I don’t particularly like, but I looked over at the guy and he had one hand out all crazy like Christians sometimes like to do. (And I would never have thought someone could be so inclined during something as dry as Prayer For Our Congregation.)

“He’s a Jew for Jesus!” I thought suddenly. “We let a Jew for Jesus have an aliyah! Twice!! I wonder if the rabbi knows!! This is insane! Unprecedented! Exciting! Right here in our own synagogue! The enemy within! Hiding among us!!” I just read this article where some Jew for Jesus was saying “he’s just like us“, and now here’s one; a real one! They wear techelet, don’t they? That’s what I heard!

He was so eccentric otherwise, though. Whenever he shook someone’s hand he would kiss his own hand afterwards, for example. Does it add up? Tell me who this guy was!


So I said in June:

I kind of like being the only one who knows that I’m wearing it, but I’m not going to attribute that to “women being inside, private souls and men being public souls”…I’m just going to attribute it to my not being quite ready to worry about other people’s reactions at the moment.

Ready to worry about other people’s reactions now.

Because seriously keeping this junk bottled up is ridiculous, and it’s not doing its job if I’m forgetting it’s there and I mean really. I was going to keep it concealed for one week, just for my own compulsive impulses, to make sure I wasn’t just trying to be all flamboyant; but by day four I was done with that nonsense.

So now that I’ve been doing this for two weeks or however long it’s been, I can now be free to not worry about my own aim, which is true.

I have three feelings most of the time:

1.) I hope the rabbi doesn’t pop out from someplace because I kind of want to avoid that conversation. Luckily, he’s already on that.

2.) I feel like kind of a freewheeling spirit because I tend to wear big Woodstock Revival skirts with those things so they can hide in the crevices, and so thusly I always feel like I’m ready to go catch a freaking butterfly or have an adventure or something.

3.) As much as I always hated the internet, I have to admit that if it weren’t for internet people I would never have the audacity to do this thing. Or anything. I’d probably still be waiting around for my rabbi to approve of me, and trying to convince myself that the warped logic of sexist bochurim actually makes sense, and thinking there must be something inherently wrong with me because I don’t enjoy being in shul with a bunch of people who aren’t my age and would rather not be told when to sit or stand or to be boxed into a two-minute silent Amidah, and thinking that I’m not a whole person—since I can’t be a real womyn if I don’t love making challah and babies.

So, that being said, hello tzitzis.

What, you mean it’s not supposed to look like that?