My Forbidden Orthodox Love
I fell for the girl in the FBI T-shirt the first time I saw her. But she was religious, and I wasn’t.
It was a cold and windy December night in 2004, when four teenage girls walked into Jerusalem Pizza, a kosher pizzeria where I was working in the heart of Monsey, N.Y.
When the girls took off their coats and settled into a booth, I noticed three of them wearing the strict uniforms of Bais Yaakov of Monsey, an Orthodox girls’ school: dark flats, high black socks, pleated skirts three inches below the knee, and blue button-down shirts. The fourth girl, however, her blond hair in a ponytail, wore sneakers, short white socks, a denim skirt an inch above her knee, and a light blue top that said “FBI.”
Growing up in Monsey’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, I was taught from a young age that it was forbidden to look at, touch, or talk with girls. Looking, touching, and talking would be acceptable only when I was married, my rabbis said. The summer before, my parents had had a loud and chaotic divorce, and I had switched from Mesivta of North Jersey (my yeshiva) to East Ramapo High School. I was 16, and it was my first time attending public school, the first time in my life rabbis weren’t telling me what I could eat and wear, or whom I could talk to. But I still didn’t know how to do the things kids in public school seemed to have been trained to do all their lives: order a sandwich in the cafeteria, change in the locker room for gym class, or talk to girls.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of the girl in the FBI shirt, while she ate her pizza. I wondered why she was wearing a shirt that said FBI. But I hoped that her secular clothes meant that she had left the fold, too. She had crystal-blue eyes and a beautiful smile. I wondered if this was love. I had learned the word “love” six years earlier, when my grandmother yelled at me for signing a letter I wrote to her, “Sincerely, Moshe.” I didn’t understand why that upset her. Growing up, my parents and seven siblings didn’t hug me or use the word “love.” Instead, they yelled and hit. To feel warmth, I wore layers upon layers of clothing or lay down on the carpet where the sun was shining.
The next night, as I was closing the restaurant, the phone rang.
“My friend who was there last night likes you,” a girl told me.
“Really?” I answered skeptically.
“The one wearing the FBI shirt.”
“OK, put her on,” I said calmly, but my heart was pounding.
I asked the FBI girl to give me her phone number, so I could call her back when I got home. After we hung up, I pumped my fist and yelled “Yes!” into the empty restaurant.
When I called her from home later that night, she told me that FBI stood for Fabulous, Beautiful, and Intelligent. She said it was an old shirt she bought at the mall. I told her I liked it. She was a senior at Bais Yaakov of Monsey, she said, but she hated the uniform, all the people, and her parents.
“I think you’re really cute,” she said.
“Thank you. I think you’re really cute, too. And fabulous, beautiful, and intelligent.”
She asked me what my favorite color was. No one had ever asked me that before. I thought about her denim skirt and light blue shirt and answered, “Blue.”
It was late when we hung up, but I couldn’t fall asleep. I wanted to stay up all night and talk with her.
A week later, the FBI girl told me by phone that her mother had heard from someone in the community that we were talking (we had talked every night on the phone that week, except on Shabbos) and had threatened to take her cell phone away. We made a plan: She would stay over at a friend’s house for Shabbos, and we would meet Saturday afternoon at Bais Rochel (a girls’ yeshiva) close to her friend’s house and mine. Because it would be Shabbos and school wouldn’t be in session, no one would see us.
On Saturday, the FBI girl stood on a rock in front of the school, waiting for me. She wore a winter coat and a long black skirt. We found a spot on the grass in the back of the school.
“You’re beautiful,” I said, looking at her blue eyes. Her nose and cheeks were red from the cold. I wanted to kiss her, like I’d seen couples do in public school and in movies. I imagined it would feel soft and sensual. Just thinking about it made my stomach turn from excitement. I wondered if she was thinking the same.
I reached out and ran my hands through her straight blond hair. “It’s so soft,” I said.
“You smell nice, too.”
I should lean in toward her, I thought, and we’d magically be kissing.
“I should get back,” the FBI girl said. “It’s getting late.” She didn’t want her friend’s parents to grow suspicious.
She got up and brushed off the leaves that had stuck to the back of her skirt. We walked from the back of the school to the sidewalk alongside the road. I confessed that I was scared it would be the last time I would see her. We hugged and I smelled flowers in her hair.
“Can I kiss you?” I asked.
“Like a good boy,” she said.
“How does a good boy kiss?”
She pointed to her cheek. I was willing to do whatever she asked; all I cared about was seeing her again. I kissed her on the cheek, like a good boy, and held her.
A thrift shop in New York’s East Village holds the story of my kids’ early years, and of a changed neighborhood