DISCLAIMER: There are exceptions to everything I write. I can’t speak for every Orthodox Jew in the world, but this is how Orthodox Jews look from my vantage point.
1. You guys have sex through a hole in the sheet, right?
No, but I’ve been asked this numerous times — once even by my cleaning lady. Which is pretty funny because she’s SEEN my sheets. I’m thinking,”Hey, lady, you make my bed! Ever seen any hole anywhere? Nuh-uh? It’s cause we don’t got ‘em!” People assume that because we’re outwardly modest that our modesty continues behind closed doors. It doesn’t. (News flash: We also shower like regular people!) It’s a big mitzvah for a husband and wife to be together — and not just for procreation. A wife’s sexual satisfaction is actually part of her marital contract, and if her husband doesn’t fulfill his end of the deal, it’s grounds for divorce. Don’t assume that because you don’t see us being overtly sexual we aren’t doing so in private places. That’s the point: We believe these matters are private.
2. You wear a wig? Oh, so then you shave your head, right?
No, actually, I don’t. And none of my friends who cover their hair do either. It’s only a small segment of the Hasidic community that does. Why do I cover my hair in the first place, then, and with gasp a wig that makes me look beautiful? Well, that’s a longer discussion than we have time for in BuzzFeed land, but I’ll keep it simple: Jewish modesty is not about looking unattractive, it’s about keeping certain parts of yourself private. The wig creates a barrier between me and the rest of the male population, and there’s only one man who can cross that barrier. Again, there’s no space to do the topic justice, but let’s get one thing straight, folks: If you see a wig, assume there’s hair underneath, because there usually is.
3. You’re a woman, so you’re subjugated, right?
No. I’m not, and I don’t think any of the women in my community are either. But of course there are SOME subjugated Orthodox women in the world because there are jerky men everywhere including in the Orthodox world. Orthodox Jews have many shared values with second-wave feminists, and the vast majority of Orthodox women that I’ve come across feel respected and are choosing their way of life. Does Judaism consider men and women to be different physically, emotionally, and spiritually? Heck, yeah! But different in a yin-and-yang sort of way, not a in a Coke-Pepsi sort of way (Coke clearly being the superior of the two). Orthodox Jews are second-wave feminists. We believe in celebrating women’s unique womanhood, not trying to make her more like a man.
But don’t take my word for it! Go out and meet some Orthodox Jewish women yourself and see directly from them how they’re treated. You can come to us for Shabbos, if you’d like. (Did I mention that my husband is an excellent cook?! ;) )
4. You’re a woman, so you don’t work, right?
Actually, I do. And most of us do. I once literally had a fight with a reporter from a major news outlet about this because she wouldn’t believe me. She had no real knowledge of the Orthodox community, yet she INSISTED that Orthodox women don’t (and can’t) work. She noted at one point that “maybe my secular bias is getting in the way.” (Ya think?!) When she finally conceded that Orthodox women could work, she asked, “Well, what do they do — run shops?” Eye roll. “Well,” I began, “Some run shops, and some run companies” (like Rickie Freeman, CEO of Teri Jon). “And some run hospital departments” (like Dr. Laurel Steinherz, director of pediatric cardiology at Memorial Sloan Kettering.) “And some run legal cases at major law firms” (like Lydia Kess, a Hasidic Jew who was the first female partner at Davis Polk — one of the most prestigious law firms in the country). And frankly, there’s more Orthodox Jewish woman - from all walks of Orthodox life — excelling in so many more professions than I even have space to mention.
5. So, you’re gonna have 10 kids, right? (Because you’re not allowed to use birth control, right?)
My aunt asked me this exact question. Mind you, she — a non-Orthodox Jew — has five kids. (She was trying for a girl, but kept getting boys instead.) When she heard I was making the switch to Orthodox, she assumed that a boatload of kids was coming with it. I explained to her that I wasn’t even sure we’d get to the five she had! (We have four.) Birth control is part of Jewish law, though some communities use it far less liberally than others. Possible reasons for using it could include mental health, physical exhaustion, physical health, recovering between kids. Jewish law only states that a couple have a boy and a girl in order to fulfill the commandment of procreating. (If you can’t get both genders, there’s also an idea of stopping when you’ve had as many as you can handle of the one gender.) Having more kids is looked on favorably, and, like I said, in some communities, they REALLY take this seriously. But you’ll find plenty of Orthodox families with two to three kids. (In my circles, the average is four to five.) We do not all believe in “having as many children as God gives us.” Many of us believe that God gave us birth control for a reason and that there is a time and a place for it.
6. So you don’t believe in science, right?
An old friend and I were walking through the Museum of Natural History with my family a few years ago, and as we passed the dinosaurs, she blurted out, “But you don’t believe they existed because you’re Orthodox, right?” “Um — yeah. I believe the dinosaurs roamed the earth hundreds of millions of years ago, so do many other Orthodox Jews!” There’s actually an association of Orthodox Jewish scientists. And Maimonides, almost 1,000 years ago, wrote that the creation account in Genesis is not meant to be read literally in all its parts. And Nachmanides, another great rabbi from almost 1,000 years ago, essentially described the Big Bang Theory in these writings (Google “Nachmanides Big Bang Theory” to see for yourself.) There’s an OLD tradition for not reading the creation account as seven literal days. Are there Orthodox Jews who do not believe in the Big Bang Theory and evolution? Of course. But there are many of us who believe that Torah has room to include these scientific principles. We believe that God created the universe and that science can help explain how that process happened.
7. So, you’re Hasidic, right?
This one is REALLY hard to understand from the outside looking in. The only Orthodox Jewish characters in popular media are “Hasidic Jews.” A more modern variety of Orthodoxy or just less Hasidic one just doesn’t exist in Hollywood. And in terms of the news headlines, I’ve noticed a trend. When a more “moderate” type of Orthodox Jew makes the news, he or she is rarely called “Orthodox.” Case in point: Tamir Goodman was dubbed “the Jewish Jordan” by Sports Illustrated — not the “Orthodox Jewish Jordan.” America’s Got Talent semi-finalist Edon was referred to as “kippah clad,” never Orthodox. But when child molesters hit the news — Nechemya Weberman, for instance — you’d better believe they’re called “Orthodox” or “ultra-Orthodox” in those instances. The truth is, there is a HUGE diversity within the Orthodox world. There are academic/intellectual Ivy League Orthodox Jews and hippie-artsy Orthodox Jews (like the guy pictured above). There are Sephardic (of Middle East decent) Orthodox Jews and black Orthodox Jews. There are a variety of different types of Hasidic Jews and there are non-Hasidic Jews with beards and black hats. I’ll say it again: Not all black hats and beards are connected to Hasidic Jews.
8. You keep kosher — oh, so your food was blessed by a rabbi, right?
We’re at this park with my kids and I see an ice cream stand. “Excuse me, sir,” I begin, “do you know if your ice cream is kosher?”
“No,” the ice cream man retorts, “The rabbi never came to bless it.”
Eye roll. Of course the rabbi never came to bless it! Because kosher has nothing to do with blessing. It has everything to do with preventing non-kosher things from getting in. And any Sabbath observant Jew can supervise food for this purpose — it need not be a rabbi. Also, kosher food is not healthier. We don’t eat it for physical benefits: We eat it for spiritual benefits. A product that’s kosher simply means that it was supervised by someone who made sure nothing non-kosher got in.
9. Oh, so then you can’t wear stylish clothes, right?
Actually, there are TONS of Orthodox women who are super-stylish. You just never noticed them because they blended in with the rest of the world. There are some who believe that religious Jews must dress in clothes that make us look different than everyone else. There are others who believe that if we dress modestly and wear yarmulkes, that’s enough. Fashion certainly isn’t the end-all and be-all in life, but for a person who cares about it, there is room for him or her in the Orthodox Jewish world.
10. All you men are rabbis, right?
This one is confusing. You’re used to a “rabbi” having a beard and wearing a black hat, but for many Orthodox Jewish men, that’s how they look no matter WHAT their profession. Like, for instance, my in-laws were visiting, and my father-in-law is Lubavitch, which means that on Shabbos, he wears a black hat, a long black coat, and he’s got a long, white beard. And so my neighbors saw him and asked, “Who’s the rabbi staying with you?”
“He’s not,” I replied. “My father-in-law works in computers!” Not all rabbis have beards and black hats (some just wear yarmulkes and are clean-shaven.) And not all blacks hats and beards equal rabbis. The guy in the picture above is not Hasidic, nor a rabbi — he’s in the nonprofit world!
11. Oh, so then you’re a rock-throwing, gay-bashing, judgmental child-molester supporter, right?
Oy, this one is tough. The aforementioned list exists in the Orthodox world. But there are many, many of us who are disgusted by everything on that list. We believe in observing the Sabbath, but not throwing rocks at those who don’t. We believe that the Torah — even those challenging verses in Leviticus — still applies in this day and age, but we also believe, as our sages teach, that we shouldn’t judge another person until we’ve been in his place. And we believe that the essence of the Torah is loving your neighbor as yourself. We insist that criminals are immediately reported to the police, as it is a Torah principle to “not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood.” There are some people in the Orthodox community not living up to the standards that Judaism asks us to, but please don’t assume we’re all like that.
12. So you eat lots of gefilte fish, borscht, and other sub-par foods because you’re kosher, right?
The kosher aisle in supermarkets (outside of major Jewishly populated cities) would lead a person to believe that kosher eaters subsist on matzoh and gefilte fish. The truth, though, is that kosher food and wine has gotten super-duper gourmet. That’s not to say that all kosher restaurants are at this level, but trendy cooking techniques (like sous-vide and ceviche) are happening at upscale kosher restaurants, and the kosher consumer has more options in terms of products with kosher supervision than ever before. (Some Polly-O cheese products will be certified OU kosher starting in April!)
13. You drink Manischewitz wine and listen to klezmer music, right?
Wrong. These stereotypes are so ubiquitous and SO far from the truth. I have NEVER seen a bottle of Manischewitz wine in over 15 years in the Orthodox world. I have seen PLENTY of Kedem grape juice. (That stuff is awesome!) I have also seen some very fine, high-quality dry reds and semi-dry whites. The kosher wine industry is outta control these days. But no one drinks Manischewitz. And I don’t know any Orthodox Jews who listen to klezmer. I know many who listen to top 40, classic rock, and other mainstream genres, though. And while there are those who do not listen to secular music out of principle, Jewish music is not as traditional as people assume it is. There is fun, pop-style, dance-style Jewish music that has spread throughout the Orthodox world. At our recent premiere party for the launch of our “Orthodox Jewish All Stars” video, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was there realized at one point that a Hebrew, Hanukkah-themed version of “Gangnam Style” was being played by the DJ, and he looked a little confused.
“Oh, you were expecting klezmer, right?” I asked him.