Spending this month in Modiin, Israel recalls my mini-sabbatical here two years ago during which I shared my experiences. Here follows one of them (from 2007):
Greetings from Israel !
As my black Shabbat hat has never traveled well, I decided to purchase a hat here and store it with relatives when not in use. My shopping excursion took me late Friday morning to the nearby all-Haredi town of Kiryat Sefer, a suburb of Modiin (its official name is actually Modiin Illit). Where better to find a black hat ? I was right about the hat, but my experiences that day also revealed the subtle stereotypes that inform our snap judgments and often mislead us about the people we meet.
Being off (Rabbinic)-duty and mindful of the warm weather (temperatures every day in the upper 80’s), I was dressed in civilian clothing: a blue polo shirt, with a USS Arizona insignia, picked up on a visit to Pearl Harbor several years ago. The outfit was mild by Teaneck standards but shockingly modern in Kiryat Sefer, which is a sea of white shirts and blacks pants. Kiryat Sefer is a growing city of now more than 15,000 souls, and, unfamiliar with the area, I stopped several pedestrians and asked (in Hebrew) for the location of the nearest hat shop. “What type of hat ?”, they asked, to which I answered, “a Shabbos hat”, to one person, “like the (black) one you are wearing.” Each of them took a glance at my shirt, and burst out …laughing. One person’s laughter was so spontaneous that he rained saliva on our car. The unstated enigma was: what would a person wearing a blue polo shirt want with a black Shabbos hat ? Nevertheless, in true Israeli style, I was told, in rapid-fire Hebrew “straight, left, right, right, left, straight” and there it was.
The store was divided into different individually owned sections, and unfortunately, the hat department of that place was (sort-of) closed – the proprietor had left earlier that morning. Fortunately, I am resourceful, and told his neighbor-merchant that I can’t start Shabbat without a hat, and I would deal with him, a very pleasant Sephardi, who said “Bechavod”, which I took to mean “help yourself.” Within a few minutes, I found the perfect hat that needed steam-cleaning that the other merchant (a shirt salesman) had no idea how to do. Again, “Bechavod”, and I turned on the steam machine (violating, I am sure, some OSHA regulation) and, after burning my thumb on the first attempt, successfully steam-cleaned my new hat, and picked up a handy skill in the process. The Sephardi was genuinely impressed, and asked me if I was ever in the hat business. I paid him – in fact, bought a white shirt from him also – and departed with my new black hat, to accompany my blue shirt.
Fast forward several hours to my first Shabbat, spent in a small yishuv near Modiin. As I entered the shul dressed in my brand new white shirt, my sparkling new black hat and my old black suit I was greeted by hundreds of people clad in white shirts and kipot serugot. I stood out (not that it bothers me), but now in a completely different way. In the early afternoon, I was the “Modern” amidst the Haredim; now I was the “Haredi” amidst the “Moderns”. People assumed they could discern my personality, world-view, or spiritual commitment through my clothing. Somehow, though, I felt like the same person the entire day.
Uniforms serve to bind a person to a team, a cause, a profession and the like. They help us form a superficial judgment of the person before us: soldier, policeman, doctor, Yankee or Met, etc. They tell us little more, and little more that it important. Yet, we often presume to understand an individual, simply by virtue of his/her clothing or facial hair or accent. The prophet Shmuel thought he could identify G-d’s anointed by his external appearance and characteristics, until Hashem led him to anoint Dovid “… for it is not as man sees – man sees what his eyes behold, but Hashem sees into the heart” (I Shmuel 16:7). We cannot see into the heart; would, then, that we not think we know anything about anyone’s inner world.
Jews have a uniform too – a uniform of mitzvot. We cover our heads and men wear tzitzit; beyond that, no dress is prescribed by the Torah, nor does the pious Jew adhere to any particular color scheme (all rumors to the contrary notwithstanding). Clothing, and one’s appearance generally, should be clean, neat, presentable, dignified, modest and unpretentious. And a person’s true nature is revealed through his/her deeds and thoughts, through our values and commitments, and through our goals and aspirations. If, for example, the variety of kippot worn today – each different in size, texture, material and color – tell us with what “team” a person identifies, it still tells us nothing about what type of player he is on that “team”. Our handbook of facile descriptions is often as misleading as it is definitive. It distorts more often than it illuminates, but it is so prevalent that it is nearly impossible to disavow. Yet, that is required of us, so we form an opinion of others based on their discernible qualities of character and not the “team” with which they identify, and so grow in love and appreciation of all Jews.
Shabbat Shalom from Israel !