A Soulless Figure, A Figureless Soul

My roommate came home yesterday with a story I’ve experienced myself too many times in too many different ways.

She was laughing, the type of laugh we squeak out when our body is trying to defend our heart.

Shrill voice, a look of disbelief, flushed cheeks. But laughing. 

While she was walking home from school with a friend, a Haredi Orthodox boy of about eleven looked back at them. His look of confusion caused them to ask if he was okay or if he needed help. 

“From you? You whore!”

My roommate, shocked, replied, “Have you ever learned Torah in your life? Because you don’t have any derech eretz (common decency).”

“You’re upset because you know it’s true,” he replied. “You’re saying that because you can’t admit it to yourself.”

When she told me what had happened, my stomach fell the way it always does. When I’m asked to move on a bus. When I’m walking down the street and I can feel their stares pierce through me. When I’m asked to stop singing zemirot at a Shabbat table. 

I cry when his father asks me to move to the back of the bus. I’ve left Shabbat tables and have started sobbing in the bedroom when his brothers tell me to stop singing. I pray that one day, the inevitable answer will not be to leave Orthodoxy. I remind myself that secular women don’t have it any better. We bear the same burdens, them on the streets and me on my side of the mechitzah (the barrier separating the women’s and men’s sections in an Orthodox synagogue).

But my roommate looks at it differently. She thinks that he verbally assaulted her because she is not haredi Orthodox.

I wish that were the only reason.

He tried to disgrace her because she is a woman. She scares him because she is not a Madonna. She is not married, her long flowing hair cascades down to the top of her tailbone. She laughs loudly, full of life, but not yet swollen with life growing inside of her. 

And so the eleven year old is confused. If she is not a Madonna, then she must be the whore. 

He doesn’t see that his mother owns her sexuality just like the women in Tel Aviv do. She sticks her fingers into herself multiple times a month. Diligently. Gently.

Checking to see when she will be ready for her husband.  

His father, who teaches his son how to treat a woman, will have (sometimes) holy and (sometimes) monotonous sex with his mother. But his father’s mind and actions cannot relate to his son what a woman is. Because maybe it is also hard for him. To see the woman of the night as the woman of the day. The mother of his children and the one who knows him like no other can. Because he doesn’t see that the whores are also mothers, just like his wife. Kneading dough for Shabbat, kneading out the night from their minds. Knowing men like his wife, his Madonna, his queen, knows him. They too check themselves. For disease, for love. 

And so I don’t blame the boy. He doesn’t know what a woman is. He doesn’t know because he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t see me pray. He doesn’t see me pore over Tractate Nazir (in the Talmud), teetering between the ethereal and real. He doesn’t see me when I walk down the street. He doesn’t think I know ka echsof (a Hasidic Shabbat song) by heart. He doesn’t think I know how to get just as high as his father on Purim. Or dance like his Rebbe on Shabbat.  

What he sees is someone who confuses him. I choose to believe he stares because he is trying to decide where I belong. But I also know he’s staring because he is begging me to leave. Silently screaming at me to let him be. Let it be just him and those like him. Don’t force him to see the Other. To see that I am a refined version of him, not of dust.

But I stare right back, forcing him to see that I am a Madonna. And I am also the whore. 

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