“Tzfat,” I tell the driver, handing him a 100-shekel bill as I board at the same north Tel Aviv bus station where the double-decker express bus to Jerusalem stops.
I like exchanges like this, in which I need only say one word, my destination, and don’t have to betray my American accent or clumsy Hebrew or worse, ask the person if they speak English. At these moments I like to think I blend in or maybe could even pass for an Israeli.
The driver, a slightly overweight middle-aged man with brown sun-leathered skin, quickly makes change, using the metal clicking device all Israeli bus drivers seem to have that makes the coins fall out, and then prepares my ticket, a few strips of paper with holes punched in them.
I wonder if he or the other people on the bus think I’m Orthodox. Since I’m on my way to visit my Oberlin friend Chavie at an ultra-Orthodox women’s yeshiva, I’ve dressed in a long skirt, tights, a bulky sweater and my Jewish star necklace — it’s almost like a costume. Purim, Judaism’s answer to Mardi Gras, starts tonight, and while most of the people in my program at Tel Aviv University — probably most people in Tel Aviv — will be putting on sexy costumes, going to parties, and getting ridiculously drunk, I’ll be in Tzfat, a city everyone describes as “mystical,” hanging out with a bunch of girls who, like Chavie, grew up secular but have decided to become religious.
Looking down at my body, not an inch of skin exposed except for my neck, face and hands, I wonder what Yair, the Israeli guy I fool around with occasionally, would think if he saw me now. But the whole point of this trip, I remind myself as I settle into an unclaimed seat in the middle of the bus, is not to think about Yair. I met him last month at Focus, the campus bar in the basement of my dorm, and was immediately drawn to his small, slender build, closely cropped black hair, to the fact that he was Israeli and yet not quite as intimidatingly confident or aggressive as the other Israeli guys I’d encountered. I had arrived in Tel Aviv a month earlier – on the one-year anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s Scuds — with three goals: learn enough about Judaism to compensate for never having had a bat mitzvah, become fluent in Hebrew, and lose my virginity, preferably with an Israeli guy. An Israeli guy is a sort of holy grail for most of us girls in Tel Aviv University’s Overseas Student Program. We’re drawn to their thick accents, their military training, and the fact that they’re a limited-time offer: available only until the semester ends and we return home.
Even though we met on campus, Yair isn’t a student; he’s working at a video store until he can score high enough on the English test needed to get into university. He’s kind of racist and might even be a little stupid; it’s hard to tell because his English isn’t great and my Hebrew is worse. Nonetheless, until this week I’d been hoping he might be the one to help rid me of my virginity.
When Chavie, who I haven’t seen since getting to Israel, first suggested that Purim would be a good time for me to visit her, I was dismissive, thinking I’d join Yair at a party or bar with his friends, some place where real Israelis went and not just semester abroad students. But then he gave the lamest excuse for not having time to see me that week – he said he was too busy getting his Purim costume ready – and then he seemed surprised when I asked if he wanted to spend the holiday with me. Humiliated, I opted to accept Chavie’s invitation instead of spending Purim in Tel Aviv without Yair.
Leaning against my window, the incomprehensible Hebrew conversations forming a sort of white noise around me, I feel glad to be on a bus bound for a new city, not sure what awaits me but moving farther away from Yair with every spin of the bus tires. I glance at the other passengers, mostly a mix of young soldiers, both male and female, and wonder what it will be like to see Chavie again.
When you think about it, Chavie is the reason I’m even in Israel this semester. If I hadn’t happened to meet her that night sophomore year when I impulsively dropped in on a Jewish women’s discussion group she was leading, I wouldn’t have joined Kosher Co-op, and then I wouldn’t have found the Tel Aviv University brochures, with their enticing photos of attractive students surrounded by palm trees and modern buildings.
With her soulful brown eyes, gentle warmth, and almost maternal energy, Chavie enchanted me right away, welcoming me in a way I didn’t feel welcome anywhere else that semester, certainly not in my Black Women Writers class or my vegan dining co-op filled with social justice crusaders or in my cinder block postwar dorm that my roommate and one time close friend Sarah abandoned for her artsy smoker friends’ off-campus house.
“I never had a bat mitzvah,” I confessed, when Chavie, at the end of the session about stereotypes of Jewish women, asked me to add my name and phone number to the Hillel sign-in list.
“That’s OK, neither did I,” she said, unfazed.
“Also, I don’t know how to read Hebrew, and I grew up celebrating Christmas as well as Chanukah, because my stepfather is Christian,” I said, determined to get it all out in the open in case she needed to reject me.
“You don’t have to pass a Hebrew test to be Jewish,” Chavie said, putting her hand on my shoulder and staring warmly into my eyes. “My stepfather isn’t Jewish either. Why don’t you come to our Shabbat dinner at Kosher Co-op this Friday night? We make our own challah!”
At the Friday night dinner, the blessings over grape juice and challah reminded me of nursery school back at the Jewish community center in Houston, long before my parents divorced, the last time I’d been enrolled in anything Jewish. When Chavie suggested I join Kosher Co-op, I jumped at the opportunity to escape my co-op Fairchild, with its unfriendly members, its doughy, insufficiently risen whole wheat bread and its mountains of unseasoned lentils dumped over mushy brown rice. Whereas I’d never known which round table to sit at in Fairchild’s bleak grey basement dining room, Kosher had only two long tables, one of them facing a window overlooking campus, so you just pulled up a chair, and were included in the conversation, which was usually a friendly argument. Like my grandparents, many of the Kosher Co-op members had New York accents and their speech was dotted with Yiddish words. Kosher was a family, one in which I belonged, just by virtue of having been born Jewish.
Chavie wasn’t the only Orthodox Jew at Kosher Co-op or even the only one who hadn’t grown up that way. But she was the most intriguing one, perhaps because, like me, she was a child of divorce and because her journey was the most dramatic – from completely secular to ultra-Orthodox. She shared her story with me, how, lonely in high school and living with an alcoholic mother and her stepfather, she started spending time with an Orthodox rabbi, his wife, and their kids. They were from Chabad, a group of missionary-like Hasidic Jews that reach out to secular Jews; after a year or so, she became religious and changed her name from Ava to Chavie (the ch pronounced like in challah), the Hebrew (or was it Yiddish?) version of Eve. I was impressed by her decisiveness; changing your name seemed so bold. What name would I choose if I ever became religious? Other Jewish kids I knew had been given Jewish names —Yiddish or Hebrew names — alongside their regular names, but my parents hadn’t bothered with one. And 1970s American “Jessica” certainly wouldn’t work if I became Orthodox.
It wasn’t just Chavie’s transformation that fascinated me. It was also her seemingly authentic positivity, the way she never said anything mean or kvetchy, and the joy, the serenity she seemed to gain from observing rituals. I yearned to become close friends with her, and we went on frequent walks together on Saturdays after lunch, when I was procrastinating homework and she was observing Shabbat. And yet, she felt more like a sister than a friend. She was happy to spend time with me, but she never really confided in me, and I was always a bit unsure whether she wanted to be my friend or just wanted to bring me into the fold.
The ride to Tzfat is longer than I’ve anticipated and most of the other passengers disembark at various small cities long before we get there. The scenery shifts from coastal plain to green farmland to rocky mountains. As night falls, the air becomes colder, the roads narrower, and all I can see are the dim shadows of mountains. The road twists, and the bus strains to climb the steep curves.
When we finally arrive at the Tzfat bus station, I am surprised by how dark and quiet the place is. It’s only 8 p.m., but feels much later. We are literally at the end of the line, and there isn’t even a staff person on duty at the bus station whom I can ask for directions. The driver – and the handful of other passengers – evaporate into the darkness pretty much as soon as I step off the bus. Cold, tired, and hungry, I sling my bags over my shoulder and stand under a lamppost so I can read Chavie’s directions to her yeshiva.
It has no sign or even numbers on the gate, and I walk past it several times before pushing the gate open, walking tentatively through the scraggly garden and ringing the doorbell of the old building. The only reason I venture in is that something about the place seems institutional, like a 19th-century orphanage or home for wayward girls.
When Chavie comes downstairs to greet me after another student opens the door for me, she looks radiant. She still has long, slightly messy black hair, and wears the long sleeves and one of the long, not-so-fashionable skirts she favored at Oberlin. But she’s lost weight, and just seems lighter, happier. She hugs me warmly, and it feels so comforting; I realize I haven’t been touched by anyone other than Yair since arriving in Israel.
Following her up two flights of stairs to drop off my bag, I take in the walls with peeling paint and taped-up flyers with transliterated Yiddish and Hebrew words I don’t understand mixed in among English ones about chore rotations and prayer schedules. The building is shabby, cluttered and a bit dusty, with worn grey and brown carpets and furniture, bookshelves stacked with prayer books. The main decorations are framed pictures of the smiling, blue-eyed white- bearded Lubavitcher rebbe, the spiritual leader of Chabad, Chavie’s sect of Hasidic Judaism.
On the way upstairs, Chavie and I pass several modestly dressed girls who nod cheerfully to us. The walls seem to reverberate with feminine voices and laughter. It’s a very female place, but in an old-fashioned “Little Women” way, not a joking about sex and borrowing tampons kind of way. I feel like I have journeyed through the darkness and mountains to a completely different country, maybe a different time, a world away from the noisy pushing and flirting and soldiers and pick-up lines of Tel Aviv.
Maybe I could live here, I think. I could drop out of Tel Aviv U, drop out of Oberlin, start a new life here tucked far away in the mountains. I think about the alternate, English version of the name Tzfat – Safed, like on the colorful “Shalom of Safed” poster that decorates my Aunt Joan’s house. Like Safe, Safety, Saved. I yearn to be inspired, to throw myself into something larger than myself, to feel passion so strong that I will forget about Yair. I want to lose myself in something timeless, something connected to my ancestors. Maybe there is a reason I haven’t succeeded in losing my virginity yet; I’ve been destined to land in this holy, all-girls space where the fact that I am still a virgin will not be embarrassing, but valorized.
Chavie’s bedroom consists of a single bed, a small desk, a bookshelf, a tiny window and a small wooden wardrobe with no door. Most of the books are gold-trimmed Judaica ones. When I pick up the few modern-looking paperbacks on the shelf, I am disappointed to discover that they are not novels, but inspiring texts that are supposed to have important messages about life. Despite my desire to be enlightened, these books look too boring to open. On the wall is a requisite picture – the same, official head shot — of the Santa Claus-like Rebbe.
“The Rebbe’s a popular guy!” I joke, gesturing to it.
“It’s a mitzvah to put his picture up,” Chavie says. “Actually, he’s the only man who’s ever been upstairs. I mean, just his picture of course. Even the Rebbe wouldn’t be allowed into a girls’ dorm!”
This is the only girls’ dorm I’ve ever been in; the only all-female dorm at Oberlin is a “womyn’s collective” that would never use the word “girls” to describe its inhabitants, and I’m pretty sure all the dorms at Tel Aviv U are co-ed. Just the name “girls’ dorm” seems delightfully old-fashioned and innocent, like something out of the 1950s.
Chavie and I head downstairs to the second floor to get ready for the yeshiva’s Purim party. I haven’t thought to bring a costume, but Chavie says she can probably rustle up a mask or a crown for me. She is planning to go as a rabbit; she shows me her bunny ears headband and fuzzy zip-up costume, more children’s pajamas than Playboy bunny. In the hallway outside a communal bathroom, more elaborate costumes are in the works. Several girls are crowding around a full-length mirror, adjusting outlandishly-colored wigs, trying on gaudy costume jewelry, applying makeup. All this elaborate primping for a girls-only event seems odd; the only time I put so much effort into my appearance is when I am hoping to find a guy to fool around with.
“What do you think, Chavie?” a pretty girl with glasses, auburn hair and a husky voice asks as she and her obviously fake bosom approach us. “Is it too much?”
“What did you stuff in there?” Chavie asks.
“Socks, cottonballs, tissues, whatever I could find,” she laughs, then turns to me. “Hi, I’m Rivky. I usually barely need a bra. I had to buy this monstrosity at the shuk,” she says, referring to an outdoor market. She yanks her blouse below the shoulder and flashes me an industrial-strength beige strap.
Before I can think of a funny retort, Chavie says, “This is my friend, Jessica,” and I say, “Hi.”
“Where do you learn, Jessica?” Rivky asks.
“Tel Aviv University?” I ask, not sure if by asking where I “learn” she wants to know where I go to school or what.
“Tel Aviv has a seminary?” Rivky looks confused for a moment, then says, “Oh, like junior year abroad. That must not be a very easy place to be religious.”
“I’m not,” I say.
“Jessica’s from Oberlin,” Chavie explains.
“Oh, all of us were unreligious once,” Rivky says. “That’s why we’re here, we have so much catching up to do.”
“I’m not usually so wild,” she adds, folding her arms across her ample chest. “I hope you don’t get the wrong idea about us. You know, I thought I was being original with the boob job and short skirt, but I’ve seen at least three other girls stuffing things down their shirts. And it’s funny to see all this makeup. It’s like we’ve gone back to our old selves for a night.”
When everyone is satisfied with their costumes — Chavie makes me a crown out of cardboard and aluminum foil, and Rivky places strings of beads around me like a laurel — we head downstairs to the linoleum-floored living room. Rivky, Chavie and some other girls perform a short Purim play that everyone else seems to think is hilarious, consisting of inside jokes about their teachers and the texts they’ve been studying. I watch from the sofa with three girls, each with long, straight brown hair and wire-framed glasses, who tell me they are dressed up as Milchig (dairy), Fleishig (meat), and Pareve (neither meat nor dairy), the three categories of kosher food.
“Dalia has to sit between Sonia and me since Sonia is Milchig,” explains Esty, who is dressed all in red as Fleishig and who laughed earlier when I asked if she was dressed as a devil. “We can’t touch each other or we’ll be trayf!” She speaks with an accent that is either Australian, British or South African — I always get them mixed up. Sonia wears blue, with paper cutouts of cheese, milk and ice cream pinned to her clothes, and Dalia is in white with cutouts of eggs, fish and sheaves of wheat. It’s a good thing for their costumes because I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart otherwise. It’s not just them; all the girls here look similar, like sisters, between the ages of 18 and 30, most with long brown hair and brown eyes. A few have curly hair, a few are blonde and thank goodness for Rivky, with her distinguishing auburn hair and enormous (but hardly the only) fake bosom.
After the play, we head to the dining room where Hamantaschen, the traditional Purim cookies, sit in cardboard bakery boxes on a long wooden table. There are also bourekas, dried fruit, and plastic bottles of soda and juice. I had been hoping there might be some alcohol since even Orthodox Jews drink on Purim — you’re supposed to drink until you can’t tell the difference between Haman, the villain of the Purim story, and Mordechai, the hero. Really the hero is Esther, Mordechai’s niece, but perhaps traditional Jews think it’s too far-fetched to imagine, even drunk, not being able to distinguish between man and woman. In any event, perhaps only Orthodox men are supposed to get drunk.
After we get our food, we get to choose between packing up gift baskets for nursing home residents, going into another room to sing religious songs, studying a text from the Book of Esther, or playing cards. I end up in charge of the mini challah loaves in a gift basket assembly line with Rivky (hamantaschen), Esty (grape juice bottles), Chavie (candy bars) and a girl named Hannah (gift ribbons) who is dressed as a biblical character I’ve never heard of. As she passes baskets to me, Rivky tells us how she discovered Judaism freshman or sophomore year at a big state university. Before that, she was Becky, a hard-drinking party girl. After she had an abortion and wasn’t sure who the father was, she spiraled into a depression and ultimately discovered her campus Chabad House, where the rabbi and his wife welcomed her.
“I know people think Orthodoxy is sexist, but it isn’t at all,” she gushes. “American culture is so much more sexist. I was just a sex object. At my college, guys used to rank girls as they walked by. We were numbers!”
“Yes, a bunch of guys used to do that at my campus too,” says Hannah, who is short and thin, her face pale. “I wasn’t really part of that scene. I was one of the druggies.”
“Baruch hashem, Hannah is completely recovered now,” Chavie says. I’ve only been here a few hours, but already I’ve noticed how frequently everyone says, “baruch hashem,” blessed is God, literally blessed is “the name.” I try to imagine what Hannah looked like when she was a druggie. Did she have piercings? Did she color her hair?
“Yeah, I started learning about Judaism when I was in rehab and was able to go straight from there to Tzfat,” Hannah says. “My parents live in Florida and think we’re part of a cult, but they’re glad I’m not using anymore.”
“They’ll come around,” Esty says in her British/South African/Australian accent. “My mum has started lighting Shabbos candles every week, and she’s going to make her kitchen kosher. She’s so thrilled that I broke up with Hassan.”
“Hassan was the Pakistani guy?” Chavie asks. “The Muslim?”
“Yeah, he wanted me to convert! Can you believe it?!”
“Baruch hashem you came to Israel and met Rebbetzin Goldblatt,” Rivky says.
“I know, I shudder to think of how my life could have turned out,” Esty says. “Meanwhile, I hear Hassan is dating another Jewish girl now! Poor thing.”
I am guessing “poor thing” applies to the other Jewish girl, not to Hassan, but I can’t help feeling a little sorry for him. I wonder what it would be like to have your girlfriend go on a trip to Israel and then leave you for Judaism. At least it would be better than leaving you for another guy.
“Is this your first time in Tzfat, Jessica?” Esty asks, pushing her hair behind her ears.
“Yes,” I say. “This is my first time in Israel, and so far I’ve only been to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”
“You’ll love it here, it’s so beautiful and spiritual,” Esty says. “We’re in the Old City, and you can walk the whole loop around on Jerusalem Street and have a view of the mountains the whole time.”
“It almost gives me the strength to quit smoking,” Hannah says, curling a purple gift ribbon with a pair of scissors. “I’m still a nicotine addict. But even some of the rabbis smoke, so I guess it’s not so bad.”
“Yeah, but you’ll get a better shidduch if you quit,” Esty says. Turning to me, she explains, “A shidduch is a wedding match.”
“Like in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’?” I ask. “Are you already thinking of getting married? Don’t you want to pick out a husband for yourself?”
“It’s never too early to start thinking about it,” Rivky says. “And it’s not like arranged marriages; we go on shidduch dates first to meet the guys and talk to them and make sure they share our values.”
“I can’t wait to start going on shidduch dates,” Esty says. She groans as her thick hair falls back into her face, and she pulls it back into a ponytail. “It will be so nice to get married and have a sheitel. Jessica, sheitels are the wigs we use to cover our hair. In my case it will be a big improvement because my hair is so annoying.”
The next morning I sit between Chavie and Rivky in the women’s balcony of the shul, waiting for the Megillah – the Book of Esther – to be read.
Rivky starts in again on the topic of how the Orthodox community is better for women than the regular, “so-called feminist” world.
“Here, traditional women’s work is valued: We understand that the most valuable thing a person can do in life is to raise another human being,” she says.
“But isn’t it sexist that men get to sit in the main part of the synagogue, while women have to sit in the balcony or behind that wall where no one can see them?” I counter.
“Oh, that’s easy,” she says. “It just shows that, if anything, women are stronger than men. Men have more trouble resisting temptation. If a man sees a beautiful woman or hears her voice while he’s praying, he might not be able to keep his mind on spiritual matters.”
“But couldn’t a woman be distracted by a handsome guy?” I ask, thinking of Yair the night I met him, in his faded, form-fitting Levi’s.
Rivky smiles and leans in conspiratorially.
“You know that left to their own devices, guys think about sex ALL the time,” she whispers. “Judaism reins them in a little, keeps them focused on other important things.”
I wonder if it’s true, do men really think about sex more than women do? Sometimes it seems as if I think about sex all the time. I want to ask Rivky if she still thinks about sex, if she ever misses the thrill of being alone with a guy. Last night, didn’t she wish just a little to feel a man’s gaze on her fake breasts?
“Well, how come women can’t study Talmud?” I ask. I am not even sure what the Talmud is, or how it is different from the Tanach or Shulchan Aruch or other names of religious texts that I’ve heard batted around at Kosher Co-op, but I know that – like many activities – studying them is generally off-limits to ultra-Orthodox women.
“Well, we still learn Torah and Navi,” Rivky says, using what I will later learn is the Hebrew word for the Prophets. “I mean, most Orthodox women know the Tanach much better than your typical Reform or Conservative Jew. And, of course Hashem didn’t want men and women to be identical or do all the same things. Women need time and space to be mothers. That’s another fallacy of ‘feminist’ modern society: Child care and housework are devalued, and women are pressured to juggle career and family.”
Before Rivky can continue, the Megillah reading — done by a man of course – begins. The guy chanting the text downstairs in the main section of the synagogue is doing it at a breakneck pace, and my efforts to follow along in the Hebrew fail immediately.
Sitting there, surrounded by words I don’t understand, I begin to feel bored and irritable. I look at Chavie and Rivky, but both are intently reading along in their books, contented smiles on their faces. What exactly are they getting that I am not getting? Why am I missing the magic of Judaism and of this supposedly mystical, whatever mystical means, city? When we were walking from the yeshiva to synagogue this morning, I tried to admire the mountains, but it’s a foggy and grey day, so I couldn’t see much beyond the stone walls of the Old City. Now, looking around the women’s section, it seems like everyone is thoroughly engrossed in this activity except for the fidgety little girls and babies and the mothers who are shushing them. I want to fall in love with religion, but it seems too boring.
To occupy myself, I try picking out familiar Hebrew words in the text and find “king,” “days,” “money,” “chair,” “big.” What would Esther, the Purim heroine who won a beauty contest in what was essentially a harem and then married the non-Jewish king, think about us, I wonder. Would she laugh at the modest clothing and endless talk of Hashem? Then my thoughts turn to Yair. Will I ever see him again? Will I find anyone else before I leave Israel? Am I destined to die a virgin?
If I became Orthodox, I wouldn’t have to worry about searching for love. A matchmaker would find me a husband, and I would lose my virginity the night of my wedding, a wedding in which I would wear a long-sleeved dress and men and women would dance on opposite sides of the room. But then I would be stuck having sex for the rest of my life with one of these bearded, hat-wearing guys who says Baruch Hashem all the time and is pale from too much time spent inside poring over boring religious books. Plus, I’d have to cover my hair with a wig and could never wear miniskirts again even though my hair and legs are my best features.
Sitting on the balcony at the Chabad shul, I wish I were in Tel Aviv fooling around with Yair. He is a loser. He blew me off to spend time making a Purim costume, for God’s sake! I don’t even know his last name. But I like the hair on his stomach, I like the feel of his skin against mine, I even like the ridiculous way he pronounces my name, “Yes-ee-kah,” as if he were saying “yes,” as if I meant something to him. Neither Safed nor Hashem — nor the supposedly empowering feminism of Orthodoxy – are strong enough to counter my desire for stupid Yair.
Julie Wiener is the communications director for a Jewish nonprofit. She worked for more than two decades as a reporter and editor, writing for such publications as The Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, New York Sun, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. From 2006-2011, she wrote “In the Mix,” a groundbreaking column and blog about intermarried life, for the New York Jewish Week. She lives in Jackson Heights, New York, with her husband and two daughters. “Blessed is the Name” is excerpted from Julie’s unpublished (for now) novella, “Hooker Beach.”