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This month has been a month of boxes. Assembling, packing, and taping boxes. I could have used packers and half way through packing up our rental apartment I wished that I had, but there’s something about knowing what you have, sorting through stuff, and most of all throwing out miscellaneous debris. Whilst physically I’ve been confronted with cardboard boxes, mentally as well I’ve had to look at my mental boxes. My preconceptions, my prejudices and assumptions about the ‘other’ which is cartoned in my mind.

One particular box was about the Haredi world. A world I didn’t often enter or really think about. Stepping into the black hatted world which seems so austere, harsh and separate wasn’t was never for me. The most interaction I had was schlepping my son to his orthodontist in Geulah, who has a beard as long as Santa Claus and a sefer by his orthodontic equipment which he dips into between patients. He also has a Chicago accent, a kind, welcoming smile and a great sense of humour when it comes to my son’s bitter complaint’s about his braces. Not so black and white.

A few weeks ago we had a Haredi wedding to attend in Bnei Brak. I truly love the family who invited us (black hats and all) so we were going. I just had to figure out how to go in the most respectful manner. I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable or make anyone scandalised by uncovered elbows or painted toes. So I donned a headscarf that covered every wisp of my hair. I made sure to wear stockings despite the thirty five degree Middle Eastern inferno, and I wore a soft blue dress and cardigan that covered my elbows, knees and neck. I prayed that it was an appropriate colour.

When we arrived, it was hard to figure out which wedding was the right wedding. The Bnei Brak street was a virtual shuk of chuppahs and flower girls. We finally found the right building. Two weddings were being held there. Ours was on the upper floors. I separated from my husband as I mounted the stairs to the women’s separate entrance to the wedding hall. I arrived with bated breath, not quite sure who I would know, and not quite sure who would rag me for my Haredi wannabe outfit. I was pleasantly surprised when I was greeted with warm, beaming smiles from the family members of the groom.

As a wandering Jewess I’m a consummate stranger. I know what it is to be the ‘odd one out’ and I’ve learnt from a very early age to be okay with it. But a welcoming smile to the stranger can’t be underestimated. It brings a warmth that spreads from ones toes to the tips of ones hair. I immediately relaxed and felt the tremendous nuptial joy. Over burekas and hummus I got to know the Haredi women who were the groom’s family’s community. They were warm and friendly beleaguering all my preconceptions.

We all huddled around one of the tables, because everyone wanted to sit with the groom’s mother. Happily I ate roast chicken and rice off my lap, as I was introduced to the various scarfed and shaiteled women around the table. One was a doctor who worked in a hospital, another was the widow of one of the men murdered in the Har Nof massacre. This was all whispered in my ears during the meal. I learnt that evening that you can’t judge a shaitel or scarf by its appearance.

I never expected to talk to one of the widows of the Har Nof massacre. But as we were both not dancing (I couldn’t afford for my scarf that was precariously tied to fall off) and were standing side by side she struck up a conversation, and we ended up chatting about the difficulty of immigration and how it takes up to five to ten years to settle. How does a woman who has enduring endured such shocking tragedy, smile and engage in small talk?

I pondered the thought that happiness and joy have nothing to do with what we have, and nor how life treats us. These people didn’t have much in terms of physical possessions, and everyone in that room held their life story and tears hidden in their hearts.

It was not a wedding of silver dishes and fancy flowers. It’s the first wedding I’ve been to that served Yerushalayim kugel, and had a water cooler in the corner with plastic cups. Nonetheless, the bride’s shining face beamed with an energy and happiness that I felt would see her through the reality of marriage. It was a wedding with happy, joyous people dancing in rapturous Hassidic circles (the Bride’s side was Hassidic), who bussed from near and far to celebrate with the bride and groom and their families. It was simple, and in that simplicity was the richness of friendship and love, that can’t be bought or fabricated from a bridal magazine.

I left that night with my preconceived ideas of what it is to be Haredi shattered. I still don’t know or understand that world. But at least I now am an empty vessel when it comes to how I see them. When I see a black hat or shaitel walking down the street, I now think to myself, ‘I don’t know who you are.’ Which is far better than judging and closing my mind off to their humanity.

This new month will be a month of unpacking my boxes. The cartons of prejudice, the prisons of my mind. And whilst I don’t like everybody or everything that is done in the name of religion, I can love everybody for being created in the image of God (as Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali, one of the murdered three boys, says.) And I can celebrate the openness and magnitude of the human spirit which is found in all of us across all groups, one opened box at a time.