In a university lounge somewhere in Manhattan, over leather-bound books: Our girls’ study group has gotten into the inevitable debate over the shocking sensuality of the Song of Songs.
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“Just listen to this," one girl says and clears her throat: “‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine' – and they’re not even married, the Beloved and the Shulamith!”
A student at a neighboring table looks up at us.
“‘A sealed garden, my sister my bride,'” another girl reads. “Of course they’re not married. Anyways, it’s not like anyone actually keeps the laws anymore.” And then: “Let's be honest. Everyone is doing everything in secret.”
I laugh and shake my head. "No, no, absolutely not," I insist, placing my palms on the table. "What are you talking about? We all went to yeshiva day school, and you went to seminary…" I then say something about ideals, and they smile and remind me that I’m still young – a full year younger than them. “Just wait. Ideals wear away so quickly...”
"Don't you realize that whatever they taught us in school – it's just impossible?” Another girl joins our conversation from another table. “No one prepared us for this modern world outside.”
From the shtetls to the universities
I return to my apartment that day in distress, embarrassed by my own naïveté: Why hadn’t I realized it before? Those girls were right – we’re not as "religious" as we used to be.
What if we have left our parents’ shtetls, gone to seek the city’s universities? What if, indeed, we’ve basked in our enlightenment, grown more lax, our clothing more chic, our smiles more mischievous, our evenings less innocent? Suddenly we’re in the heat of our 20s, and we discover a new lifestyle.
It’s not rebellion. That was done already in high school, by those brave enough to find the basement parties with bad yeshiva boys and shots of cheap vodka, and then in the gap year after high school, on a deafening Saturday night on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem: hookah, drinks, girls, boys, Israeli techno-music.
Now, the shift emerges from what we insist is wisdom. We continue to study our texts – only now it's with a perpetually raised eyebrow. We declare ourselves to be more progressive than our elders, more enlightened than the ultra-Orthodox teachers who taught us to pass a washing cup over our knuckles three times each, to pray fervently every day, to sing with our hearts open on Sabbath evenings, to turn to God in every moment, to punctuate our text messages with "God willing." We were taught to aspire to constant consciousness, but it’s just "unrealistic," we reassure each other. We laugh nervously over the Haredi teacher’s spelling mistakes, the provincial English, lack of university degree, awkward wig, suit pants a tad too short – and rush to point out the rigidity of the lifestyle. "Their women are oppressed!" we’re encouraged to shout loudly.
And thus, we devise small compromises that allow us to float between worlds, between secular and traditional. We stay very much Orthodox within – but selectively blur the lines. It’s then alright to order cosmopolitans at the Hotel Gansevoort in Manhattan and forget about the cranberry juice that is most likely not kosher. It’s alright to bare the knee, the collarbone, those pearl-like silks which we’ve kept so carefully hidden from male eyes for years.
We used to spend Sabbath afternoons reading Jewish philosophy and history, the weekly portion and its commentaries, inhaling those whiffs of Torah as if the books in front of us contained a tiny precious breeze from the Land of Israel. Now we sleep through the afternoon, barely making it to Mincha prayers. Blessings over food are mumbled under our breath, not because of gratitude to God, but simply because that’s a natural reflex that we somehow can’t break.
And at some point it will dawn on us, after a year or two of shidduch dating, that there’s no hope, and we might as well forget about that too. First we’ll go to bars, stand there carefully without touching anyone, tease with a smile – just because well, now we’re adults and can make our own decisions, and anyway it doesn’t say anywhere that we can’t. The boys we’re talking to are increasingly more suave. We’ve traded the boy in the hat and suit for the one in denim. When we’re left alone we conveniently forget about traditions and dismiss the pretty picture we were painted as children: the burn of his first touch after the chuppah. But who has patience for that?
And after years of Israel trips and Nefesh B’Nefesh videos, we had made bright-eyed plans of Jerusalem apartments: We girls spent hours in front of the mirror together, tying on colorful headscarves and imagining for ourselves husbands in uniform and Friday shopping in the shuk. But since then – well, we’re adults now, and other things have come up, and anyways, Israel is too fraught with tension, too complicated for the satin-like lives we want to lead. The apartment we dreamed of has shifted slightly, to that of Washington Heights, the Upper West Side, Brooklyn, whatever. We've found jobs suddenly at hedge funds and nonprofits and yeshivas where catered lunches are always kosher, and instead we attend receptions and lectures on "Israel affairs" in which we receive "important political updates."
Perhaps if we had married and cemented ourselves in the safety of domestic life earlier, things would have been different. But instead, we’ve committed to the life of single modern Orthodox Jews in New York City, in which the intense flavor of the lifestyle we were taught has faded, perhaps simply a symptom of growing up.
Now, we find ourselves in a battle of traditional educations and liberal thinking, of ideals and temptations. And at some point, things become so muddled that we can’t really determine which is which anymore: If the Outside World tells us that freedom to do as one pleases is ideal, then strangely enough, the choice to follow a set of laws has become radically tempting. That world of tradition – sometimes, yes, it’s black and white and black and white, foreboding too, but other times, it’s alluring. Why is it that colors seem more vivid there, the voices of prayer stronger, the passions for learning starker? Why are we still drawn to the concept of boundaries and sealed gardens, of forbidden and allowed?
This modern world outside
“But what about ideals?”
A year has passed since that first conversation with my Torah study partners; we’ve graduated by now. It’s a cold February night, and I’m on a date in a Gramercy Park hotel lounge with a black-yarmulke-wearing law or rabbinical student.
He looks at me with amusement.
“Ideals?” he echoes, smiling and taking a sip from his drink. “But reality beats idealism. Always.” And then suddenly he’s leaning closer, his hand on my arm. I blush and pull away.
“I disagree with you,” I say, in protest of his words or his touch – I’m not sure which.