| Staying the Course |

Staying the Course: Chapter 2

Prepared for print by Zivia Reischer

I felt the need to represent the Torah’s standards as best as I could — sometimes even better than I would normally behave


rowing up, I had attended a chassidish cheder, where all the students were from the same chassidus as my family. I lived in a chassidish neighborhood too, and most of my extended family was very similar to mine. So nothing quite prepared me for the experience of sitting for five hours at a stretch in a classroom with such a diverse group of students.

It was like the beginning of a bad joke: A chassid, a Litvak and a Chabadnik walk into a classroom. There were guys who were more religious, less religious, barely religious, and pretending they weren’t religious. There was Danny from Flatbush and Hillel from Lakewood, and a couple of guys from MTJ. There was me, a chassid; and Mendel, a Lubavitch chassid; and Eli, who came from Florida, had served in the IDF, and had never talked to a chassid before. After a couple days I discovered that Zack was a chassid too, hiding in plain sight with his jeans and cognac-colored shoes. It worked until a professor called on him to read aloud. One line of the Gemara and his cover was blown — for all his cool haircut and trendy clothes, he couldn’t hide his chassidishe havureh.

The mix of personalities and religious levels gave me a lot of insight to perspectives I had never really thought about before. During the public speaking course, one student described his struggle with the mitzvah of tzitzis. Where I came from, every mitzvah was a treasure: tzitzis was easy and inexpensive, and we got to do it every day. I had heard over and over, with love and longing, the Gra’s comment that during your life you can gain so much just by the simple act of wearing tzitzis. People found it hard to wear tzitzis? It gave me a lot to think about.

There was downtime and breaks built into the schedule, and everyone would relax and schmooze.

The schmoozing was complicated for me. Some discussions were about topics I knew nothing about, like sports and movies. On the flip side, I didn’t know nearly as much about chassidus as the Lubavitcher chassid either. When the discussion was about movies I just sat silently, looking awkward, but when the discussion was about chassidus I found myself making vague comments and hoping I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.


Worst of all was when the discussion veered into inappropriate topics. I felt terribly uncomfortable every time this happened, but I never figured out a satisfying way to respond. I couldn’t even pretend to be busy on my phone because I don’t carry a smartphone. I had no choice but to sit there, feigning deafness, and wait for it to be over. Sitting there in my krazeldik peyos, long rekel and up-hat, I felt the need to represent the Torah’s standards as best as I could — sometimes even better than I would normally behave. While I might slip in my regular chassidishe minyan, here I would never talk during Minchah.

One day as I was getting ready for a class, a student from a nonreligious background buttonholed me. He started swiping through his phone, looking for something he wanted to show me. He opened the ArtScroll app to the fifth mishnah in Pirkei Avos, which he proceeded to read loudly to me: “Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: …[D]o not engage in excessive conversation with a woman. This is said even regarding one’s own wife — how much more so regarding the wife of another. Hence, the Sages said: One who excessively converses with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects the study of Torah, and, in the end, inherits purgatory.” He slammed the phone down. This was apparently his first exposure to this mishnah, and he was full of righteous indignation.

It was like watching the flip side of my experience. These classes were my first close-up engagement with so many different kinds of Jews and their ways of thinking, and this was this student’s first exposure to the Torah way of thinking. It takes a willingness to see nuance, and a willingness to consider the “other” as legitimate, to even begin such a conversation.

What could I say? He was missing so much background, and the culture gap was so wide, and mainly, he was so upset. I didn’t want to argue with him, and there was anyway no way I was going to win. I just sat there listening helplessly. “There’s no way to square this mishnah with modern feminism!” he ranted. Well, at least we agreed on that.

This and similar encounters left me thinking, and at the end of the semester, I devoted a paragraph in my term paper to gender parity in some areas of halachah. I discussed whether a woman is allowed to be a monarch, judge, and CEO. I never had the opportunity to really answer that student, but it was some small comfort to me, an answer to myself.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 809)

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