Sunday, April 23, 2006

“Too Jewish,” or “you gotta represent”

Last Friday night, over Shabbos dinner, I told my husband that it had finally dawned on me that we face a particular challenge as a Jewish couple: In our own crazy ways, we come from opposite backgrounds, and we’ve spent most of our nearly 29 years of marriage trying to meet in the middle.

My husband was taken under the wing of the rabbi who was training him for his Bar Mitzvah celebration because he noticed that my future hubster was pretty good at learning songs. Consequently, by the time I met him, my hubby-to-be had skills far superior to mine in Hebrew reading (in terms of both speed and comprehension), Hebrew grammar, knowledge of the siddur (prayerbook) in general and knowledge of nusach (traditional prayer tunes) in particular, having been the only member of his class to lead the Musaf service on the day of his Bar Mitzvah celebration.

On the other hand, he came from a family that was almost completely non-observant, with a mother who was practically paranoid about him becoming “too Jewish.” He and his brother had to practically beg their parents to start lighting Chanukah candles and having a Seder.

My family, by contrast, while far from observant by any movement’s standards, still observed all of the major holidays, and many of the minor ones, in their own fashion. Both of my parents observed the full twenty-six-hour fast on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). My mother boiled the silverware for Pesach, and my father led the reading of the entire Haggadah, albeit almost entirely in English, from cover to cover, no matter how many of our guests left after the Seder dinner.

But my Hebrew reading skills were barely adequate, my vocabulary was poor, my grammar skills virtually non-existent, and, though a regular synagogue-goer, I’d never learned to pray in Hebrew much more than the Sh’ma and the sections of the services that are read aloud.

I should have known that a trip down the aisle was in our future when we not only starting eating Shabbat dinner together, but also undertook, on our own initiative, to learn Birkat haMazon (Grace After Meals) together.

And that’s the story of our lives. Over the years, I’ve become vastly better acquainted with the siddur, depending on the Punster to help me with the vagaries of Hebrew vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation (“Sweets, is it rashei chadashim or roshei chodashim?” “It’s rashei chodashim.”), and to show me when I’m supposed to say which prayer. (“Okay, do I have this straight: On Chol HaMoed, we say the weekday Amidah for Shacharit, but we add Yaaleh v’Yavo?” “Yes.” “But we say the holiday Musaf whether it’s the chag or chol hamoed.” “Right.”) And over the years, the Punster has become vastly better acquainted with kashrut, with going kosher for Pesach, and with all the home rituals that his parents neither observed nor taught him, learning from me to chant the Kiddush for Shalosh Regalim that I learned in Hebrew School and the Havdalah that I learned from my first cantor in New York.

Now, we find ourselves in a bit of a bind. The tradition that I learned from my parents’ rabbi was to cover my head whenever I was praying or reading divrei kodesh (sacred texts). What I never counted on was becoming traditional enough, due both to having worked in an Orthodox organization for the past few years and to hanging out in the Jewish blogosphere with some fine frum folks, that, for the first time in my life, I’m saying prayers semi-consistently outside of the synagogue. I’ve already taken to wearing my beret or baseball cap in the subway so that I won’t be listening to music written to divrei kodesh with my head uncovered. But what do I do about listening to the same music or reciting Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) at the office?

“Is it time for me to start covering my head? How can I do that? Everyone will think I’ve gone frum (Orthodox). But how can I say brachot achronot (prayers after food) with my head uncovered?”

“You can’t cover your head at work.”

“Why not?”

“Because if you start wearing a hat to work, I won’t be able to drop by your office (my husband works part-time for the same organization in a different capacity) without a kippah on my head, and I won’t be able to eat in a non-kosher restaurant if I’m wearing a kippah.”

As Shlock Rock bandleader Lenny Solomon and his sidekick, Etan G., the Jewish Rapper, usually add to this song,

“You gotta represent
with your yarmulke.”

Score one for the Punster’s late mom. Because neither of us is ready to be that Jewish. And neither of us is ready to “represent.”

Tuesday, April 25, 2006 update:
Yosele's comment about the halachic sources of the tradition that married Jewish women cover their heads has prompted me to add to this discussion some links that I should have included both here and in my Kisui Rosh post. For a thorough discussion of the subject of women and head-coverings, I strongly recommend that you read these two posts by Shifra, which include material already posted elsewhere by Dilbert on his previous blog and a link to this post by Godol Hador (which has comments by the score, despite the fact that the comments counter says "0.")

Here's the "money" quote, for those of you lacking the time to read all those comments, by an anonymous commenter responding on 09.14.05 to Godol Hodor's post :
""Women may have begun full head covering for tznius [modesty] reasons, but the purpose to the takana [ a provision of Jewish law that originated as a temporary measure?] is to prevent married women from trying to pass for single for nefarious purposes. It's meforush in gemara that common law marriages of bnei noach are ended when the woman uncovers her hair - that was the way to signify availability. For a married woman to uncover her hair was the equivalent of taking a wedding ring off in a bar. "



Blogger westbankmama said...

I don't know how to respond to your feeling that you should cover your head when listening to Jewish music, but covering your head when saying a prayer is something that is acceptable to non-religious Jews, at least here in Israel. I did not grow up in a religious home, but when my mother went to shul she would pin what I called a doily on her head on the way in. Here in Israel, I have seen non-religious women put a scarf on their heads to say tehillim in hospital waiting rooms. It shouldn't look SO strange to others!

Mon Apr 24, 05:28:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Maya Resnikoff said...

You could both do the kippah-in-the-pocket (or variation thereof, like small-scarf-in-the-pocketbook) thing, and then have it available for meals (when not in non-kosher restaurants) and other times when you want to say blessings. I did it for a while, and might have continued rather than swapping for the full-time headcovering except that I"m a space cadet. If you already have a casual hat/beret for the subway, then you can just put it on when you eat as well...

Mon Apr 24, 09:20:00 AM 2006  
Blogger elf said...

I have similar issues with head covering. (Been meaning to blog about this for some time.) I think it helps to remember that covering one's head has very little halakhic significance; it's mostly a cultural norm.

If you don't want to cover your head all the time, I think it's OK to make compromises. Recently, I started learning some of the halakhic sources on head covering for men and women, and I learned that there is some basis for covering one's head only for the Amidah and not for other blessings or Torah learning. So far, that seems to be a workable arrangement for me.

Mon Apr 24, 11:33:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

Interesting quandary - I'm totally enjoying your blog, by the way.

If covering your head has great personal significance to you, then this is a personal decision about your comfort level.

As elf said, the kippah is minhag, not halacha. Its original intent was inward transformation, to remind the wearer to keep HaShem above him in his thoughts (and yes, originally this was an all-male commentary and practice).

However, we all know that our practices, particularly around clothing, send outward messages as well. And that minhag can assume the force of law when it has been around long enough.

Working in an Orthodox environment, you might want to give some thought to the message you are conveying to others by permanently wearing a covering. The Orthodox around you will (mistakenly or not) assume this means a new level of observance in line with their assumptions and expectations of women who cover their hair.

Are you prepared to explain where your practices differ, if they, say, congratulate you on your Orthodox conversion? Or some other misunderstanding arises?

If the inward reminder is the most important aspect to you of covering your head, you might explore other possible "reminders" - putting on a special piece of jewelry, adopting a particular posture (head bent?), or simply taking a moment to center yourself before each prayer. Halachically, these are all JUST as valid as covering the head is for saying, reading, or hearing holy words, provided you bring to them the correct kavanah.


Mon Apr 24, 04:25:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Westbankmama, maybe covering my head when listening to Jewish music isn't exactly standard, but I figure that if I cover my head when reading or davvening divrei kodesh, it's consistent to cover my head when singing, or listening to someone else singing, divrei kodesh, as well. As to covering for davvening, putting on a head covering of some kind as I walk into the synagogue has been my standard practice for many years.

Debka_notion, carrying around a head-covering is pretty much my current practice.

Elf, compromises are pretty much a way of Jewish life for me, and this head-covering business seems to be turning out not much different.

Tzipporah, glad you're enjoying my blog. Thanks! The last time Fudge and I met over pizza, she suggested that I ignore how other people might interpret my head-covering and just do what feels right for me. Unfortunately, I just don't feel comfortable with that approach, as you can see from my recent post on head-covering. I am well aware of how my choosing to cover my head at all times would be interpreted by my Orthodox co-workers, and no, I'm not prepared to explain where my practices differ, if they, say, congratulate me on becoming a baalat t'shuvah ("returnee" to Orthodox Judaism) or some other misunderstanding arises.

So, for lack of an alternative, I'm going to stick with my current practice for the time being, covering my head at work only when I leave my office and find a quiet spot in which to say Mincha (the Afternoon Service). It's not that I'm really comfortable with saying, er, brachot achronot (im? ot?) (blessings after food) bare-headed, it's that I'm less *un*comfortable that way than I would be with being taken for Orthodox when I'm not.

Tue Apr 25, 01:15:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Yosele said...

Dear Shira,
I do n't know the halachot of head coverings, I know that many'frum' people say that women having their hair covered has a halachic source though I do not know precisely what those sources are and the different authoratative viewpoints and permutations, I believe it to be mentioned in the Shulchan aruch, as I can n't tell you where, do n't take my word for it.
More importantly, what an amazing blog, carry on bloging, its a great read, I wish you much Hatslacha in your spiritual quest.

Tue Apr 25, 08:39:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Yosele, welcome to my blog. I'm glad you're enjoying it, and thanks for your good wishes.

I've updated the post itself to include links to posts on other blogs concerning the tradition of married women covering their heads. (Ah, the joys of saving interesting posts in Word.) I hope that you and all my readers will find these discussions on other blogs helpful, or, at least, informative.

Tue Apr 25, 09:20:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ive seen women wear crocheted thigns halfway in size between a kippa and a tight-fitting hat (a little like carlebach kippas) they leave enough hair exposed and look just enough like regular kippas to keep people guessing as to whether its a kippa or not, without actually looking like a traditional kippa.

Mon May 01, 05:58:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I think I've tried on half a dozen of those in the past few weeks, and always with the same result--they look like bathing caps on me. Unfortunately, they're designed for women with medium to long hair. They cover the bangs completely, and "leave enough hair exposed" only for those women whose hair is at least three inches longer than mine in the back. I'm trying to see whether I can find one that looks decent folded up about an inch. It's probably a ridiculous idea, but when did that ever stop me. :)

Mon May 01, 11:37:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just came upon your blog for the first time; I can tell I'm going to become a regular!

Just a quick comment on the topic of covering one's head: what about unmarried women saying blessings, praying, etc.? Since we don't have a cultural or halkhaic reason for head-covering, does it mean that we're less aware of haShem's presence when we davven? Of course I don't think so, and am just asking rhetorically. But your thread made me want to bring it up for others' comments.

Fri May 05, 04:24:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Natasha, welcome aboard!

"does it mean that we're less aware of haShem's presence when we davven? Well, considering that, as I posted last year, we Jewish woman have nothing to help us pray, that's actually an interesting question. What exactly are we *women* supposed to look at when the Sh'ma tells us, in no uncertain terms, that when we see our (non-existent for traditional women) tzitzit we will remember all of Hashem's commandments?

Sun May 07, 02:50:00 AM 2006  

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