06 January 2016

Being an Orthodox Jewish Girl in a Non-Jewish School

I was talking to a friend of mine who is in this position at the moment and it reminded me of my own experiences as the same. I thought I'd stick some of our chatter online in case there are teenagers surfing the web and quaero mihi similes.

We had been chatting about self-consciousness and I remembered the moment when I decided that my high school was my turf as much as it was everyone else's, and so brought a bag of chocolate chips to school and walked around offering one to everyone, because I realized that I don't have to ask society's permission to do random but essentially inoffensive things.
Really, most people are too busy worrying about what you think of them to think that much about you. Ask yourself: if someone randomly handed me chocolate, what would I think? Probably nothing more judgmental than Ooh, chocolate.

(Incidentally, I feel like the-self-assurance-to-give-random-people-candy is some kind of maturity milestone that lots of people experiment with, because as I was walking through the park recently, two giggling teenage girls asked me if I would like a treat and handed me a stick of candy.
Aww. So sweet of you.

My friend was talking about bensching, that is, saying the grace-after-meals, which is in Hebrew, and rather long, and so is rather embarrassing for your average teenager to begin reciting in the lunchroom, because she has the feeling that maybe everyone is watching her and wondering why is she moving her lips talking to herself? I got so embarrassed, she said, I stopped bringing bread to school for lunch. Don't be self-conscious, I said, just make a neon flashing sign that says HI MY NAME IS ---- AND I AM TALKING TO GOD and put it on your head.
No, but seriously, in this country people talk to invisible gods all the time.

And then I remembered how self-conscious I was about bensching in the lunchroom, and how I was always concerned that someone was going to come over and ask me what I was doing, when you can't interrupt in the middle of the prayer to answer, and OMG they're going to think I'm so WEIRD, etc., etc. But no one ever did. Someone asked me one day “What is that book about a wedding that I see you reading sometimes at lunch?” – which was funny.
And if they did ask, what is the worst that would happen? I would answer a minute later. Nu.

But my friend is also self-conscious about things that never bothered me, like telling people she can't eat the non-kosher candy they are randomly offering her (see! see! people do randomly offer candy) and they say oh, come on, and she doesn't want to explain why she can't take it.
And this I do not understand, because it has always been my experience that people think orthodox Judaism is something totally exotic and fascinating and cool, and they want to ask you more questions but sometimes they are too self-conscious (o teenagers of the earth!); and nobody has ever mistaken an appreciative “Thank you, I eat only kosher candy” for missionary behavior. Really really.

In class today, she said, the teacher said something about Nazis, and a girl put up her hand and said, “I'm Jewish and I'm offended,” and the teacher apologized, and then observed that Judaism is not that common, whereupon another girl raised her hand and said, “I'm Jewish too!” but my friend said nothing, because number one the world does not need to know it, and number two why are we discussing this in math class, “and it was just funny”.

“What did he say about Nazis that was offensive?”

“Nothing, only that they murdered a lot of Jews; and for some reason the girl thought that his saying the truth was offensive.”

I groaned and said this is the sort of thing you get from kids who are proud of being Jewish but have never been taught any Judaism, so the only thing they know about being Jewish is the Holocaust; so when someone says Holocaust, they're like, ooh, someone's calling my name, and they have to show that they relate to the subject, but the only thing they can come up with is to say, I'm offended!

There are so many other things we could have talked about, like washing your hands before eating bread and then not talking until you do, and explaining to your sports coach that you're going to wear a skirt; and explaining to the biology teacher that you can't vivisect an animal; and explaining to every teacher that you need to take upmty-ump days off because of holidays; and explaining to boys that you can't slap them high-five; and explaining to everyone that you are not available on Saturday, period; and if bensching makes you that self-conscious what on earth are you going to do about Mincha, standing and facing a wall for, oh, ten minutes to have a meditative conversation with G-d ~~

~~ but from an adult perspective I am like, I was so self-conscious for no reason; most people are wrapped up in their own lives; and most people think halacha is cool and a lot of people think it is admirable; and – I think the main thing that teenagers worry about is that they are going to come across as in-your-face, ostentatious, or proselytizing; but I have yet to meet any person who cannot tell the difference between living your own life and explaining it when necessary, and ostentation.

Side point, none of this behavior is as alien as you think it is.
I had to daven Mincha in an airport the other day, but of course none of the staff knew which way was east; so I approached a Muslim woman (so considerate of them to be so noticeable in their headscarves) and asked which way is east, and we grinned at each other knowingly and she said she doesn't know east but she can tell me which way is the Qibla, which was enough direction (it's a specific way of calculating the direction of Mecca) and she went back to work and I went off to have a chat with the wall G-d and they all lived happily ever after, and really, if you are religious in public – at least in this country where you are unlikely to be slaughtered by passersby – what is the worst that can happen?

Now having said that we are not missionaries and we are not trying to be ostentatious I do think it is important for the self-conscious teenager to recognize that unobtrusively living a Godly life has major positive ramifications for everyone around you.
And also – that all this discussion of self-consciousness is just that, discussion of self-consciousness; not apologetics for the inherent worth of mitzvos. Let's say we lived in a society in which no one ever spoke to either invisible gods or invisible friends via bluetooth, so that having a conversation with something invisible really was that peculiar. Let's say we lived in a society in which people actually couldn't tell the difference between individual life and ostentation. Let's say nothing I've mentioned above has spoken to you and you still feel outrageously self-conscious. At this point, the answer is – so what? You know you're right, so the task that lies before you to do right now is just to be heroic and do it.
We'll be rooting for you :)

Of course the other major thing to do is to furnish yourself with a thorough Jewish education.
If you don't have a clear and attractive picture of what that looks like, talk to your nearest NCSY leader.

tacking on a couple of seo terms: being jewish in public school, being jewish in catholic school

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