Monday, May 01, 2006

First Impressions

Recently I accompanied my husband on a company conference in Eilat. During one of his meetings I decided to do a little shopping. Walking down the sunny sidewalk and looking for a good place to buy T-shirts for my sons, suddenly a man fell into step with me and started to speak to me.

I am a person who tries hard not to judge people by their outward appearance, but I found that in this instance some instincts and some learned prejudices got the better of me.

The guy next to me had a shaved head, two earings in one ear and a third in the second, and he wore reflector sunglasses, a black t-shirt and ripped jeans. He seemed to be somewhere in his twenties.

My first thought was, "Of all people here, why is he hitting on me?" With my skirt to my ankles, sleeves almost to my elbows and my hair covered with a scarf, I was more covered up than any other female in the immediate vicinity (we were near the public beach). So it seemed a bit ridiculous that he would approach me instead of some other woman. For some reason, although the mirror tells me I am a woman in her forties, my instinct reacted as if I was a fetching sixteen year old (and if you had seen how I dressed when I was that age, before I became observant, it wouldn't seem that unbelievable). Does that make me vain or just a woman with good self-esteem?

Another instantaneous reaction I had was to strengthen my grip on my purse. Westbankpappa is responsible for this - after we were married he taught me how to hold my purse like a New Yorker (with your grip firmly on the part where the strap meets the body of the bag). We even have a private joke about it, where westbankpappa will affect a heavy New York accent as soon as we get out of the car in the city and he'll remind me to "watch your bag, doll".

It turns out that the man next to me was interested in my purse, but not for the reasons you might expect. He looked at it and said, "I see you still have an orange ribbon..." (For those of you unaware, the orange ribbon symbolizes solidarity with the people of Gush Katif and the opposition to the unilateral withdrawal. People put them on their car antennas and on their bags in the months leading up to the withdrawal, and some still do).

I tried, but was unsuccessful at keeping the defensiveness out of my voice when I replied, "Well, I know people who are still stuck in hotel rooms. When they are all in permanent homes, then maybe I will take it off."

Imagine my surprise when his answer to me completely exploded the third incorrect assumption that I had made about him. He looked at the ribbon and said, "I have one at home. I remember when people had them on their cars and on their bags, and you saw them everywhere. It is a shame that everyone took them down." With that comment he said goodbye and stepped into a store, and I was left reflecting on our short encounter.

I don't regret my first two reactions. I think that whenever there are encounters between adult men and women there is an element of sexual attraction, even if it is miniscule and buried under layers of socialization. I dress the way I do to reinforce those layers of socialization. G-d gave us rules on how to interact with the opposite sex not because we "can't control ourselves" - we do, at least most of the time! The difference is that we observant Jews acknowledge that it is difficult, and that we need societal norms in order to help us. My assumption, while wrong in this case, was in awareness of this natural dynamic.

Holding tightly to my purse when a stranger approaches is another justifiable defense mechanism which most people pick up at one point or another.

My third reaction to this stranger makes me uncomfortable, though. I assumed that this person had very different political views than my own simply because of his appearance. I know where this comes from - but it saddens me all the same. The media in Israel, and some politicians who benefit from it, have tried to isolate the "settlers" from the rest of Israeli society. We are portrayed as religious right wing fanatics and the cause of the vicious hatred directed towards Israel by the Arab world (which doesn't explain, of course, the centuries of anti-Semitism and the wars leading up to 1967 - when there weren't any settlers, but I digress...). I know intellectually that not everyone thinks this way, and that most people don't blame me personally for the terrorist attacks that happen. Emotionally, though, it is difficult for me not to be defensive. After absorbing months of nasty propaganda directed against us, it is hard not to feel bruised - and when I encounter someone that I can't immediately identify as a friend, I automatically brace myself.

This is a real shame - and a lot of us in the dati-leumi (national religious) world are walking around with unecessary chips on our shoulders.


Blogger Ze'ev said...

WBM, great post. Very thoughtful. I to am troubled by the fact that it has become almost second nature to judge our fellow Jews just by their appearance alone.

Yet, I also found your second reaction, about the pure, to also be sad. Its unfortunate, that even in the Jewish State, a woman walking down the street instictively still feels the ned to clutch her purse close to her.

Hopefully the day will come when not only will we be able to judge our fellow Jews in a positive light, but that we will be able to walk the streets of our Homeland full of pride and devoid of any fear.

2:54 PM, May 01, 2006  
Blogger Regina said...

I think, WBM, that assumptions about others is just human nature. And if I, as a woman, am approached by a strange man, I don't care how loving and non-judgemental I think I am, I am holding onto my belongings for dear life. But in the end, I think its what you learn from these encounters that is the most important part to reflect on... obviously, you were affected by it and now by blogging about it, have given us all some food for thought for today. Who knows- I may meet a stranger today- how will I react? Thanks, WBM...

3:44 PM, May 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I guess our private joke is no longer all that private, doll.

6:45 PM, May 01, 2006  
Blogger bec said...

it's funny how people can surprise us. i probably would have assumed the same things about him. it's good to know that he's pro-settler and that there might be more like him out there.
happy soon to be yom ha'atzmaut!

12:06 AM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger the sabra said...

woah. good post. nothin like israel. nothin like us jews, ah?

10:28 AM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger tafka PP said...

Great post, WBM. Always good to have reaffirming encounters with fellow Israelis, especially right now when we're so painfully fragmented.

11:18 AM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger Rafi G. said...

once again, you can never tell! You can't tell a book by its cover. Happens all the time. We just refuse to internalize it..
Great story and great lessons.

12:02 PM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

ze'ev - amen to your wishes!

regina - I hope I learn from these things, sometimes I wonder...

pappa - oh, the trials and tribulations of being the spouse of a blogger...

bec - thanks, and I'm sure you can't wait to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut here in Israel

the sabra - welcome to my blog! yes, we Jews are something else

pp - yes, we certainly are fragmented, unfortunately

rafi - thanks for the compliment

5:31 PM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger Emanuel Ben-Zion said...

you don't have any fault, don't forget who wanted settlements in the first place. It's politics, not religion, and I'm sorry to say this, but you will not win this one. If they want to take you out, they will.

My family were settlers in Africa and I know what you mean. I grew up with those who returned to Portugal after the Revolution, the Communists didn't like us, and the people thought that we were racists and fascists. I always say, land has more power in one heart than words and actions.

2:16 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

emanuel - I am sad to say that I agree with you that if they want to expell us they will - but the pain is worse because we know that not only will the families kicked out suffer, but the the terror will only increase and others will suffer too. It helps that I believe that everything is from G-d, and it is all part of a plan that we can't comprehend now.

7:30 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger Paul D. Boyer said...

At the time I was for the withdrawl from the Gaza but realize now I was wrong. It appears the IDF will have to retake it once again, probably shortly. The only thing that comes from withdrawing from territory are more attacks.

I plan on wearing orange for you and everyone else here in Phoenix, AZ.

9:11 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger Jeremayakovka said...

Very interesting, WBM (also, EBZ), to make these experiences available to the rest of us. Thanks.

10:35 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

lewis - it is interesting to see that some people are capable of changing their minds - there are people in Israel who still think that the Oslo Acords were a good thing, and completely ignore the thousands of people killed and wounded because of them

jmk2006 - welcome to my blog. I'm glad you enjoy reading.

7:44 AM, May 04, 2006  
Blogger Batya said...

I've also had people comment on the orange ribbon, positive and supportive.
And orange and white or black were big colors here on Yom Haatzmaut.

6:09 PM, May 07, 2006  
Blogger aliyah06 said...

My son still wears his orange're not alone. Our orange ribbon finally fell off the car. Time for a new one AFTER we land.

As for stereotyping, well, you're not the only one.....I flew to Spokane, a city of heartland America, with no reputation for diversity, and one aging synagogue....and as I crossed the tarmac into the airport, I saw a young white male coming towards the door. He was dressed in a black leather jacket, a black T-shirt with an Iron Cross logo on it, black jeans and Doc Martin boots. His blond hair was shaved close to the head. "Neo Nazi" was my first reaction, and I braced myself for rudeness or worse as I was wearing a tichel....I strode defiantly up to the door, at which point he glanced up and saw me. We both reached for the door at the same time -- and he grabbed it first, opened it, and stood aside with a bashful grin, saying, "Here you go, ma'am." Stunned, I managed to still thank him, and he blushed (all 16-ish) and replied, "My pleasure. You have a nice day."

He wasn't a neoNazi. He was a teenager trying to look Goth. He was just a kid who also happened to have parents who taught him to hold the door for ladies, and to speak respectfully and politely to his elders.

Boy, did I feel silly....

5:13 AM, May 08, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

muse - my wristband snapped off so I only have the one on my purse.

aliyah06 - a tip for you - put the ribbon on the rearview mirror inside the car, this way it won't fall off and get faded. People still see it though.

9:10 AM, May 08, 2006  
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