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FIRST PERSON / ANDREA HEIMAN

Return to Faith Adds Dimension to Life

April 23, 1993|ANDREA HEIMAN

When I left for Israel for a monthlong educational program sponsored by Orthodox Jews, I thought I knew what to expect.

As a liberal Jewish woman with feminist leanings and a college education, I had preconceived judgments about the Orthodox way of life.

From my perspective, the community seemed repressed and isolated. I thought Orthodox people lived in a kind of time warp, their rules of behavior very much outdated.

Orthodox men and women don't touch, at all, unless married. Women and men sit separately in synagogue. Women keep themselves covered from the neck down even in the summer, and spend most of their time in the home raising large families. Women cannot get a divorce unless they receive permission from their husbands.

I thought these rules made women second-class citizens. On Shabbat, (the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), there are what seemed to me like a million more rules. The Orthodox can't drive, can't turn on the lights, can't cook, can't write, can't use the phone.

Although I felt some ambivalence and resistance when I embarked, I also had a sense of curiosity. Friends and family, hearing stories of people who went on trips like these and "turned religious," were a little afraid I'd come home brainwashed.

Some participants in the program--Jerusalem Fellowships-- had similar fears and misgivings. They included about 35 Jewish men and women like myself, most of us in our 20s, with varying degrees of Jewish education. I was raised a Reform Jew, and have had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Jewish community.

The sponsor of the Jerusalem Fellowships, Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based outreach organization with an office in Los Angeles, is run by Orthodox Jews to bring Jews back to Judaism. Most of the Orthodox people we spent our time with were bal 'tuvas --people who, after leading secular lives, decide to become observant. Bal 'tuva means return to faith. There is a large bal 'tuva movement among young people in the United States (though the movement is small compared with the intermarriage rate in the United States, which is more than 50%).

These were people like myself, from more liberal religious backgrounds, who found something in the Frum (religious) lifestyle they couldn't get in secular society.

Our main classroom was in the Old City, overlooking the Western Wall--the holiest place in the world for Jews, the only remains of the Second Temple. The wall provided a powerful backdrop of discussion of past and present Jewish traditions.

It was hard to believe I was where our history happened. And I was surrounded by a community of people whose entire lives are about God and learning the Torah (the first five books of the Bible that the Orthodox believe came directly from God).

The teachers spent hours engaging us in discussions about Jewish traditions and rules and the reasons behind those traditions.

I thought modesty laws were a way to keep women in their place, even to shame them about their bodies. But the explanations I heard in Israel were very different.

Recognizing that women are always at risk of being seen by men as sex objects, female modesty forces men to look at women as people. Modesty doesn't preclude a woman from looking attractive, but it's tough to focus on a woman's breasts or legs if she is dressed Orthodox-style.

Forbidding touch between men and women makes touching between husbands and wives more special, I was told--it's a way to keep the "spark" in the marriage. It also forces couples to form friendships when dating.

The Orthodox also subscribe to the "When Harry Met Sally" philosophy--that men and women can never really be just friends. Therefore, contact with the opposite sex is minimal.

Marriage is one of the main goals for both men and women, much more important than a career. Finding one's b'shert, or soul mate, is said to bring one closer to God. Matchmaking is alive and well in the Orthodox community, and many of the people I met knew their spouse only one or two months before they married. Because people are generally interviewed extensively by a rabbi or matchmaker before they are set up, inappropriate mates are weeded out.

I was told a number of times that if I stayed and studied I could probably be married within a year or two.

Women, I found, are considered by the Orthodox to be much more spiritual then men. While it has always bothered me that they are excluded from a number of ceremonies in the synagogue, I was told that women need less structure to connect to God, and are therefore excused from some of the responsibilities of worship.

On Shabbat in Jerusalem everything stops, much like Sunday in the States. Having grown up as the minority religion in my country, it was odd to realize I was surrounded mostly by other Jews.

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