BY STEPHANIE BARBÉ HAMMER
July 20, 2016
Well, here I am on my home island, the island of Manhattan, attending a wedding for my step-niece, Leah. The wedding will not take place on the island of Manhattan, but rather in Brooklyn, which is not an island, exactly. Read on.
I seem to have a love affair with islands. I grew up in Manhattan and spent summers on Whidbey Island and its coastal opposite—Long Island. I attended a small women’s college, which was a feminist island, I was a professor in the Ivory Tower Island, and I’m a poet and avant-garde fiction writer living on my own personal island of strange imaginings. Perhaps it’s true that “no man is an island,” but this woman is sometimes—for sure.
The wedding I’m attending takes place on a figurative and spiritual island: the island of Orthodox Jewry. My step-niece Leah is Orthodox, as is her stepmother, my sister-in-law (also named Leah), her husband, and their large extended family.
Orthodox Jews prefer the term “Observant” or frum (Yiddish for ‘devout or pious’), and they tend to live in communities that appear to hold themselves apart from the secular society in which they’re rooted. This has to do with dietary rules as well as the rules for keeping Shabbat (“Sabbath”), which goes from sundown on Friday night to a bit past sundown on Saturday night. If you follow these regulations, it’s helpful to have stores in the neighborhood that carry kosher food and that open and close in ways that follow religious guidelines. It’s also good to have neighbors who are on the same page with you because, in an emergency, they can help you and you can help them.
There is also—clearly—protection in numbers. Observant Jews are wary—with some justification-—of being the victims of anti-Semitism, particularly because they are often visibly “different.” The men, in particular, can stand out with their black hats and suits.
I have to be honest: I tend to visit this particular island with trepidation. I am not frum and, to make things more complicated, I am a convert to Judaism. Since I converted under Reform auspices, my conversion is not necessarily recognized as “kosher” (aka valid) in the community my step-niece, my sister-in-law and her family live in. So, when I step onto this island, I feel out of place and foreign.
I also have to dress quite differently. I have to wear a special long-sleeved, high-necked, ankle-length dress and, as a married woman, I’m expected (although not obliged) to cover my hair. I’ve also learned recently that the color red is not particularly favored by frum communities, which means that I may have to leave my beloved signature red glasses in the hotel room and wear my spare pair, which is a discreet dark brown.
But the fact is, my frum family treats me with respect and love, despite the fact that in my regular life I wear pants, use cuss words, and eat bacon.
So, am I really going someplace so different or is this an island I have created in my own imagination? Remember, I like to do that. Make stuff up.
As I put on my long dress and my hat and my closed-toe shoes, I invite all of us to consider what islands are real islands and what islands are islands that we make up in our own minds. What separations and distances do we create out of our own unease with people who are different than us?
I visited MAPS (the Muslim Association of Puget Sound) this past spring, and I felt fine wearing a scarf. So maybe I need to get over this internal island thing.
Still, I’m looking forward to getting back to Whidbey. I might even put on some shorts! BLT, here I come!
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry. She is the author of a poetry chapbook “Sex with Buildings” (dancing girl press 2012), a full-length poetry collection “How Formal?” (Spout Hill Press, 2014), and a comic magical realist novel “The Puppet Turners of Narrow Interior” (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2015). You can follow her on twitter (stephabulist) or read her blog “Magically Real” as she tries to read “100 Years of Solitude” in less than 100 years at http://www.stephaniebarbehammer.net.
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Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed your account, and your journey into “Frum” with it’s joys and pitfalls. I am from the same part of the country, on the Jersey side of the Hudson, and lived near an Orthodox community which was across the NY state border in the Spring Valley area. I had many non-Observant Jewish friends at home in Oakland, and actually went to more Bar Mitzvahs than confirmations – an anomaly for my “family” at the local Dutch Reformed Church (aka Presbyterian). So, thanks for a fun start to this beautiful day and I look forward to spotting those red glasses when we’re out and about some day – I’ll holler shalom aleichem from across the street.