Monica Rozenfeld moves to Brooklyn with two roommates — a Catholic and an observant Jew — and they each seek understanding of what it means to be religious.
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How do you define me?
There comes a time in everyone’s life when they consider online dating. “Too religious” for JDate (I keep Shabbat and kosher), but not necessarily religious enough for Frumster (I’ve been known to sunbathe on Shabbat), I often struggle with which box to check and which label to apply to my Judaism. Am I somewhere on the line that spans widely in Modern Orthodoxy? While applying that label loosely, it always feels like a sweater that never fit right.
Having started my religious journey nine years ago, I’ve had the privilege of slipping in and out of various circles that range from Chabad houses and Upper West Side “fashion show” Shabbats to Kabbalah Centres and soul searchers who are a little lost now and then.
See, I know the lingo now, and I secretly get great joy out of surprising religious men who stick out like sore thumbs in Brooklyn bars with my knowledge of halacha (Jewish law) while I’m wearing clothing that isn’t modest. The looks on their faces are priceless, and I see the cogs turning trying to figure out how I know the things I do and what brought me to this place. They don’t come from where I do, and while their Saturday night outing is somewhat of an escape from their sheltered existence, I’m just doing what I’ve always done – grabbing some drinks with my girlfriends, only lately we talk about the coming of moshiach (the Messiah).
Sometimes this doesn’t work in my favor. Sometimes when I see an attractive man with a covered head, lightly bearded face, rocking tzitzit, I wish I looked like a baal tshuvah stereotype. The spitting image of a girl trying to fit in and serve G-d at the same time. Because if I’m not wearing a skirt down to my knees and sleeves that cover my elbows – the Orthodox uniform – how else will he know that we practice Judaism very similarly? Well, conversation might help, and I might throw out terms that only “insiders” know, but I always feel like I’m trying too hard. That I’m too desperate to be recognized as “one of them.”
It wasn’t until this past Rosh Hashana that I stopped thinking about how to classify my Jewish identity and I allowed myself to be defined. When I showed up at my friend’s building, I bumped into another guest who had just arrived. Because of my outfit (long sleeves underneath an otherwise sleeveless dress), he asked if I was frum (religious). “Ish,” was my answer. Later in the evening seated around the dinner table with friends, after discussing with one in particular what a Neo Chassid is, we all had a chance to go around the table and share a story or thought with our fellow diners. When it was my turn, I shared my shofar experience. I told them all about how my soul exploded when I heard the shofar blast for the first time this year. How I had a one-on-one with the Big G. Offered myself as an empty vessel to be filled with His kindness, and prayed for a joyful year. I must say, I got some interesting stares. And then….”Your soul exploded?! Of course you’re a Neo Chassid!”
A week later I am still embracing this title. Sometimes I laugh at it and don’t take it seriously. Isn’t a Neo Chassid just some kid who wants to be spiritual without any religious practice? Maybe. Or maybe the new definition can be shaped by the individual. So my version of Neo Chassidism is being a girl in her twenties who wears pants when she wants to (and if she gives them up it’s simply because summer is too hot for jeans), prays earnestly during soul-shattering Rosh Hashana services, hits up the bar on Saturday night drinking and shooting the breeze about when the Messiah comes, and makes sure to observe the Fast of Gedaliah the next day, even if the religious men at the bar tell her she doesn’t have to.