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.