Half a dozen of the other, or: Jew

Tassels swinging as they walk
to the Wall on Saturdays;
      perhaps not. It depends,
      you know. Some wear frock 
      coats so you wouldn't
      know it; 
      plus- tassels probably don't swing much under heavy polyester.
I went abroad
to teach a group of secular Jews
      from Russia 
      in Georgia. The
      country. I wore my skullcap (that's
      not what I call it) and
      only ate kosher food. They asked me all about ultra-
Orthodoxy. I'm no authority. No
insider. Most of that community sees
      me as no 
      different than secular
      Jews, perhaps "worse".
      Complicated to explain 
      without getting into theology.
Hard to explain even
to Jews. Moving
      on - 
      I live 
      with them in holy Jerusalem;
      a large group assembles on Saturdays
      near my former downtown apartment to block
traffic. My secular father found
this fascinating, as he did
      nearly everything; my wife 
      found it degrading. Me too.
      Most who protest weekly 
      wear those frock coats,
      indicating membership in a Hasidic sect. Those who
wear modern black
business jackets  
      are of the "Lithuanian" ultra-
      Orthodox persuasion, which, only several centuries ago,
      vehemently opposed
      Hasidic ways. 
      Now they're united in Israel's parliament 
against serving in the 
defense forces, despite 
      living under their protection.
      Difficult not to let
      bias show like my epidermis.
      I'll try
      to stick to the facts, Sir, Ma'am. That's what I am
here for. Not so sexy
writing about Jews; not
      something the world cares to know about.
      Write what 
      you know. 
      Some, mostly Hasidic,
      will never, ever see my words online because their rabbis 
forbid Internet access. Oh.
Those tassels are actually fringes,
      tzitzit in Hebrew, 
      which I wear, sometimes
      for months at a stretch, until I tire
      or struggle
      through a religious crisis. Those frock coats?  
Bekishes. Never worn one, nor
do I 
      want to. It's ironic (
      that they adopted the dress of non-
      Jews in the Czarist 
      era and claim today that it's authentic Jewish garb.
I wouldn't wear that, even to cover
      my epidermis, 
      but I'm not trying 
      to. Ultra-Orthodox 
      women don't wear pants and cover their hair upon marriage. 
      Some wear wigs; but some heed rabbis who rule:
Personally, oh-
      never mind. Just the facts, Ma'am, Sir.
      My skull cap is a kippah; that's
      Hebrew. Means
      dome. Many call it
      yarmulke. That's Yiddish. The majority who speak Yiddish
are Hasidic. The majority  
who speak modern Hebrew
      are Israeli.
      Jews' exteriors once mattered more
      to me. I saw wisdom in beards;
      now I have one;
      it's meaningless. I once asked a rabbi why he didn't have one.
He'd never thought
about it; I felt foolish. Still
      do. If tzitzit are concealed 
      by bekishes, you'll 
      note ear locks swinging as they 
      walk to the Wall on Saturdays;
      perhaps not, but most Hasidic males have them. I 
don't. I do
have insight into their 
      lifestyles, as I've studied
      them; we share
      a heritage and religious texts.
      The rub is that most 
      of the world sees me and assumes I am one. I


Open Link

For today’s d’Verse open link, I’ve decided to share a free verse poem that I wrote ten months ago, not long after I created this blog.

I rarely write free verse, although I think I should do more of it… but I struggle with poetry that doesn’t have any rules attached to it. What is it exactly that makes the above staggered sequence of words a poem?

85 thoughts on “Half a dozen of the other, or: Jew”

  1. Interesting reading this as I don’t know much of Jewish culture. Have you read The Source by James Michener? It’s on the birth of religion and the history of Israel in part. A heavy read, but I think you will find it interesting.

    1. YES! Wow, that is SUCH a good book, Anitaelise – I loved, loved, loved it. It’s “heavy” but it’s so good that it’s “light”! How did you come upon it? 🙂


      1. At the local library when I was in my late teens. Find the print of James Michener books too small to read now. And he wasn’t on Kindle when I last checked.

          1. Hi David, just have an issue with Michener books -the print is tiny as the books are long. Too much screen time these days makes these tiring. Have no problem with other paperbacks. Thanks for asking.

  2. Having read both your poem of Jews and Sanaa’s on Muslims I feel that most of us have more in common with each other across religions (and even secularism) than what we have with different ways isolations…

  3. What makes this a poem is that you induce thoughts/responses. Your line breaks are very effective, especially the enjambment, which can lead a reader to give a phrase more thought or even to consider it in a different way.

  4. My first wig was made of my own hair, cut after 7th grade and saved by my grandmother specifically for this purpose. The reason for this custom, according to my grandmother (I have no other sources for it) was a medieval ‘Droit du seigneur’ (the lord’s right to the first night). Brides’ hair was cut before the wedding and their heads shaved. The lord, faced with a boldy on the first night, would consider her ugly and leave he alone. Meanwhile the wigmakers worked through the night to make a wig of her hair which she would wear as a married lady. The custom, as customs often do, grew and lost its meaning with time. In about the beginning of 19th century, the wigs became so elaborate that some Hassidic Rabbis felt that women went out of their way to attract attention, thus violating one of the laws, that of modesty. They issued a rule whereby wigs were unnecessary (nobody has claimed they were necessary to begin with!) but permissible, if covered by additional hair covering, i.e. hat or ‘tichel’ (kerchief). Thus you see Hassidic women wearing a tiny piece of lace or a headband over their wigs. Again, wigs are unnecessary, but nowadays a good quality wig runs into thousands of dollars, presenting an image of financial affluency.
    Pants (trousers, if you are British) were allowed by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as long as they are: a) distinctly not male trousers, and b) do not emphasize female figure. The first condition comes from the Torah (men and women are forbidden to wear each other’s clothes), and second, again, is based on the law of ‘tzniyut’ (modesty).
    I personally do cover my hair, but not fully, as I follow my husband’s ruling (he follows his yeshivah’s tradition) to cover a minimum of 3/4 of the head. In my profile photo I wear a wig, but my own hair looks exactly like that, only shorter. I usually wear a hat – love hats! – or a tichel, but I do wear the wig with another head covering on top of it when I go to shul, as it was specifically recommended to me by The Bialeh Rebbe from Jerusalem (‘recommended’ does not mean ‘ordered’!).
    I wear only skirts in public, but I do wear yoga attire at home. These are my personal choices, based on my family traditions and my husband’s yeshivah learning.
    I apologize for a lengthy discourse, David, but perhaps it will clarify some issues.
    Shabbat Shalom,
    P.S. Do you want my input on bekeshes and kapotas?

    1. My first wig was made of my own hair, cut after 7th grade and saved by my grandmother specifically for this purpose.

      Interesting! Do you have any idea if this is still a common way of doing things, Dolly?

      The custom, as customs often do, grew and lost its meaning with time.

      This is something I know, but the traditional Jewish community’s broad resistance to reflecting upon the origins of traditions and potentially making them more relevant to our present reality frustrates me.

      Hassidic Rabbis felt that women went out of their way to attract attention, thus violating one of the laws, that of modesty.

      Dolly, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve been told that this (today) is a difference between mainstream Sephardic and Ashkenazic norms.

      Pants (trousers, if you are British) were allowed by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein

      True, but how many Orthodox women who do not identify with Modern Orthodoxy do you know who wear pants publicly? For that matter, how many Modern Orthodox women do? It’s a minority.

      Do you want my input on bekeshes and kapotas?

      Dolly, any and all of your responses, feedback, and input are always appreciated.

      Much love,

      1. To answer your first question, David, I don’t know, but my guess would be that wigs now are purchased in advance, rather than made in one night. I have yet to meet a wigmaker who would sit through the night to make a wig!
        As to Jewish resistance to explore the origins of traditions, that’s a two thousand-year tradition in itself, necessitated by conditions of exile as the only practical way to preserve Halachic way of life while lacking appropriate Halachic guidance. When my husband and I got married, he, with his yechivish education, used to make fun of my ‘Hassidishe shtick,’ until his Rebbe, Rabbi Gutman ZT’L told him to cease and desist because, even though some of those ‘shtick’ are silly, make no sense, and altogether borrowed from Gentile neighbors, many of them come from deep Kabbalah, and today we don’t know the difference between the two kinds.
        On the topic of wearing pants, I think that today’s fashion does not make much of a distinction between male and female pants, so unless they are specifically palazzo pants, definitely not worn by men, wearing male attire violates Torah She b’Ktav. Sephardic women wear palazzo pants in public, often with a tunic on top, and that’s fine. But I’ve had Baalei Tshuvos ask whether a garment is appropriate, and not only pants, but tops that do not cover elbows and collar bones (it’s hot in Florida!), and I always say that I am not a Rabbi, and not even a Rebbetzin. Ask your local Orthodox Rabbi.
        There are quite a few differences between Sephardic and Ashkenasic traditions, headcovering being one of them. I am sure you are familiar with Sephardic tradition of eating Kitniyot on Pesach. This again goes back to the centuries of Galut, which originated a tradition to follow traditions of one’s father or teacher who is considered as a father. If, as in my husband’s case, the father was not observant, the teacher, or teachers, would step in.
        This neatly takes us to bekeshes and capotas. As Jews settled throughout Europe during Middle Ages, they have adopted styles of clothing of their Gentile neighbors, while still adhering to Halacha which requires Jews to differ in their clothing and to observe the Mitzvah of Tzniyut. As you know, one of the merits credited to Jews in Egypt was wearing distinctly Jewish clothing. While Europian fashion of Renaissance period and later centuries was glaringly inappropriate for Jews (tights and codpieces!), so they continued wearing earlier, Persian-inspired long loose garments, or ‘kaftans,’ eventually those were replaced by more practical trousers and long coats popular in Germany and Poland. The word ‘kaftan,’ preserved in Ladino, became “kapoteh’ in Yiddish. But the climate in Europe was much colder, an outer garment was needed, and Hungarian sheepskin coat ‘bekes’ became a Jewsh ‘bekeshe.’ It was elaborately decorated, so Hassidic Rebbes morphed it into silk or woolen fancy coat, as a garment of distinction. Modern suit coats are not exatly appropriate as they do not cover backside (‘tokhes’). I am quite sure that if the Gentile fashion changes to satisfy Halacha, Orthodox Jewry will happily adopt it.
        Shavuah tov!
        Air hugs,

        1. Dolly,

          Shavua Tov!

          unless they are specifically palazzo pants, definitely not worn by men, wearing male attire violates Torah She b’Ktav

          It seems to me that men’s bodies and women’s bodies are shaped differently, and so are standard pants for both sexes. I would not be able to wear my wife’s pants, nor she mine… For me, personally, and I know that I am not alone in this, pants that are designed for a woman to wear, designed to fit a woman’s body, are women’s clothing.

          Halacha which requires Jews to differ in their clothing

          I confess to not being familiar with this halakha – I only know about beged ish/ah and tzniyut. If this is true, then why adopt non-Jewish clothing at all? And how did they make it look different than the gentiles’ clothing?

          one of the merits credited to Jews in Egypt was wearing distinctly Jewish clothing.

          Dolly, am I mistaken that this idea is based on a midrash?

          Modern suit coats are not exactly appropriate as they do not cover backside (‘tokhes’).

          But this is what ultra-Orthodox Litvaks wear today, no?

          Much love,

          1. David,
            tightly fitting pants or jeans ‘designed to fit a woman’s body’ are inappropriate in terms of Tzniyut. To the best of my knowledge, when women historically wore male attire, uniforms, or armor, those pants had not been designed for women. It’s when fashion designers started designing female trousers that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein issued a P’sach.
            Halacha I am referring to is in Shulchan Orach (‘A Jew must look differently’), and yes, it is based on that Midrash, and it has been interpreted very widely in different communities at different times. For instance, peyes or Tzitzit have been considered sufficient to present a different image.
            ‘Why adopt non-Jewish clothing’ is an interesting question to which I don’t know the answer. I can only guess that living among Gentiles, conducting business with them, and adapting to harsher climates brought that about.
            As to ultra-Orthodox Litvaks, of whom my husband is one, he does wear a kapoteh to shul, as well as all Jewishly significant occasions, and all his Rabbeim in Ner Yisroel (as Litvische as it comes!) wore bekeshes. Suit jackets are supposed to be a bit longer, although I don’t always see it in reality. My husband also wears a Cuban shirt, gayabera, during the week; it is loose and long. And it’s hot in South Florida!
            With my Hassidic background, I am not the one to discuss Minhagim of Litvaks, David.
            Big air hugs,

            1. Hi, Dolly ❤

              Thanks for engaging me in this exchange.

              jeans ‘designed to fit a woman’s body’ are inappropriate in terms of Tzniyut.

              The difficulty that I have with this is that I have seen many Orthodox women (including Haredi women) wearing tight dresses that go below their knees (and are therefore within acceptable halakhic bounds in their communities) but are very revealing of their womanly curves. By my logic, if tight pants are considered to be immodest, such dresses and skirts are also immodest because they don’t leave much to the imagination.

              Unrelatedly, it’s interesting that you hold by Rav Moshe – he wasn’t Hassidic, was he? Do you hold by him because of your husband?

              Much love and appreciation,

              1. I agree with you, David, and I was surprised, not to say shocked when I first saw those tight dresses. However, Pirke Avot admonishes us to view every Jew as a Tzaddik, unless proven otherwise; therefore, I choose to think that either they know something that I don’t (there is plenty that I don’t know!) or they don’t know (‘Ein Am haAretz Hassid’) but it’s not my business to tell them.
                There are quite a few things I do by following my Grandmother’s Hassidic traditions and my Great-grandfather’s rulings (he was the Rav of Zhitomir ZT”L), but in terms of attire I follow my husband’s Yeshivah traditions, unless I don’t feel comfortable (such as pants or uncovered head in public).
                On that topic, when I first saw the “minimal” Mekhitza in an Orthodox synagogue, I felt acutely uncomfortable, until my husband explained Halakha and mentioned yet another Rav Moshe’s P’sach. So then, if we end up in a shul like that, I just sit by the far wall, where I feel comfortable. As one of my colleagues says, with a Spanish accent, “It’s all культурал” (say it in Russian, David!).
                Much love,

  5. Interesting musing about Jewish identity. I understand that rituals can be very comforting, but if there is a G-d, why would he, she, or it care about how we dress? (That’s a rhetorical question.) 😀. I guess I’m a secular Jew, but still a Jew. I don’t think any of us can forget centuries of persecution.
    We really enjoyed Shtisel on Netflix, but I know the reaction in Israel was mixed.

    1. I don’t think any of us can forget centuries of persecution.

      For me, this is also true, Merril, but it’s not enough to make me feel that I want to be a part of the Jewish people. I need positive reasons too.


  6. Although you say it’s ‘not
    something the world cares to know about.’
    I found this fascinating, David. Particularly the orthodox dress. I used to see guys dressed up like this wandering around Golders Green in London, and it made me so curious about their lives!

    1. Sometimes, Ingrid, I feel like I’m hitting people over the head with my constant ruminating over my Jewish identity – I suppose that I feel self-conscious about it. 🤷

  7. Thank you for this walk through the Jewish community to the Wall, David. My grandfather came from a Jewish background, but we were never given the chance to explore it. I have recently watched two amazing films, one called Song of Names, which is set in London, Poland and New York, about a young English boy who grew up with a Jewish refugee from Poland, a genius violinist, who goes missing and he spends his life searching for him, finding out more and more about the Jewish faith; the other, Sixty Six, a light-hearted film about a young boy in London whose bar mitzvah happens to be on the same say as the World Cup final. Your poem has taken me in a very different direction, to Jerusalem, a place I always wanted to visit but never got the chance, and to the heart of Judaism. I’ve seen beards, frock coats and tassels in London, but I didn’t know about women not wearing trousers (over here pants are something else!).

    1. Kim, I’ll have to watch those movies – thank you for the recommendations! What are “pants” in your neck of the woods? I looked it up and it says “rubbish” – is that correct?


  8. I feel the same about poetry structure making it easier to compose. As for this piece, I was taken by the use of (epidermis) – very appropriate and the analogy of what we wear and what covers us is well done.

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