September 15, 2019

We’re All Heathens

Photo from Pixabay.

In 2009, I attended a three-week seminary course in Jerusalem, becoming one of the first in my non-Orthodox family to travel to Israel for the specific goal of Jewish learning.

In what became an infamous emblem of the struggles many non-Orthodox Persian Jewish parents experiences when their children become more observant, my mother hugged me at the airport and said, “Stay safe. Make sure to visit your uncles. And if you come back, get married and decide to wear a wig, I’ll kill myself.”

She then waved goodbye and resumed questioning my hungry father over the whereabouts of a box of pistachio nougat.

In Israel, I took a bus to Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, in search of Judaica gifts (and a cheap wig that would terrify my mother), but as soon as I stepped off the bus, I felt like a naked heathen.

Clearly, I was out of my element. Wearing a V-neck T-shirt, bright pink cardigan, knee-length skirt and with bare legs, I could sense an air of judgment among the locals that reflected my deficiency in being the “right” kind of Jew.

Back in L.A., I wore the same “brazen” outfit to Rosh Hashanah services, and was nagged about wearing such “stubbornly modest” clothes. Some family members even jokingly referred to me as “the rabbi’s wife” — despite the fact that I was still single, because in their eyes, I looked too religious.

Truly, one’s heathen in Mea Shearim is another’s rebbetzin in L.A. 

Truly, one’s heathen in Mea Shearim is another’s rebbetzin in L.A. 

As for my mother, she was uncomfortable with any level of Jewish observance that exceeded hers, which can be described only as a mix of charming traditionalism, Old World superstition, and paralyzing fear of a thunderbolt-clad God.

As you can imagine, I was confused.

I considered myself Orthodox Light, but when I was in the presence of “real” Orthodox Jews, as I called them, I felt like an imposter. And when I was among family and non-observant friends, I was a religious fundamentalist.

My only comfort against my Orthodox imposter syndrome was the thought that there had to be Charedim in Mea Shearim that would have frowned upon non-Charedi Jews, even if those Jews were Orthodox rabbis who made Moses look like Woody Allen.

In other words, there are Jews everywhere — from secular to ultra-Orthodox — who will never be observant enough for other Jews. And you know what? I’m as guilty as anyone. Despite my imposter syndrome, I’ve been known to frown on other Jews’ level of observance. Once, I begged a secular, non-Persian Jewish friend to join me for Kol Nidre services, instead of going to a steakhouse with his friends. He chose the steak, and I was dumbfounded.

I can only conclude that we’re all heathens. Of course, I’m using the term tongue-in-cheek, in the sense that we’re all heathens, and none of us is a heathen.

Heretic musings aside, in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, most of us find ourselves auditing the ways we have “strayed” from God. Persian Jews, regardless of observance level, acknowledge two iron-clad religious truths. First, one’s posterior, if you will, is expected to be at the Shabbat table every Friday night. And second, that same posterior must be on a synagogue pew every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Anything on top of that is a bonus. I had never met a Jew who experienced Yom Kippur with a side of garlic fries but who am I to judge?

Judgment is only there to stunt our spiritual growth. Nothing kills motivation to grow like the feeling that we’re basically irredeemable. I especially loathe hearing secular friends describe themselves as “bad Jews.”

The best description I ever heard about religious observance came from Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel of Chabad of Arizona State University, my husband’s alma mater.

“Tabby,” he said over coffee during a visit to L.A. several years ago, “there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Jews, and no ‘religious’ or ‘irreligious’ Jews. There are only those who are connected and those who are not. I hope that you’ll choose to be connected.”


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.