When I was finally admitted to the hospital in 2002 to be treated for anorexia, I was anxious. I suspected that over the next three months, I would be poked and prodded by various doctors, undergo intensive therapy, and experience rapid weight gain. But I was most anxious about something entirely different: For the first time ever, I was about to become closely acquainted with non-Jews, and I had no idea what to expect.
I winced inwardly as my mother grilled the social worker to ensure I’d receive only kosher food, feeling like Woody Allen in full Hasidic regalia in that infamous scene in Annie Hall when he first meets his girlfriend’s non-Jewish family. “Maaaa,” I whispered furiously. “Stop.” Her sheitel and my long skirt already marked me as obviously Orthodox. No need to add fuel to the fire before these non-Jews, who I’d been led to understand were a different species from me entirely and before whom I had no idea how I’d be received.
After my parents left, I sat down to dinner, and my face turned increasingly crimson as I struggled to undo the several layers of plastic wrapping on my kosher meal. I felt a tap on my shoulder. This is it, I thought. This is where some anti-Semite makes fun of my archaic dietary rules. “It’s probably easier if you just stab it straight through, like this,” the blonde girl sitting next to me said and then demonstrated. Steam hissed through the giant hole she had just poked with her plastic knife, and I mumbled my thanks. “So, what, you’re like a religious Jew, or something?” she asked. I nodded, holding my breath. Here it comes.
“Cool,” she said, sounding kind of bored, and turned back to her own meal. I exhaled slowly.
Growing up in the heart of Flatbush, Brooklyn, I didn’t get to meet too many people who weren’t strictly Orthodox Jews, and I knew absolutely no one who wasn’t Jewish. And really, it was implied to me early on, why would I want to? From the way my elementary-school teachers referred to goyim with either malevolence or dread, to the way they harped on our history of escaping centuries of religious persecution perpetrated by different offshoots of Amalek, it appeared as if another attempted genocide was right around the corner, with the goyim at the helm.
Anytime a student did anything that went slightly against the grain of the strictly Orthodox mores of the school, the teachers called it goyish, as if that was the worst insult they could possibly lob at us. During one class exercise on what jobs we might want one day, I was eager to offer something different from the chorus of standard replies—mother, baker, teacher—and, going through a dolphin phase, I triumphantly offered, “I want to be a marine biologist!” The teacher’s withering look of disdain sent me frantically searching for any possible connection I had missed between marine biology and, say, devil worship. “That’s very … goyish,” she spat, as my classmates drew in a collective breath of horror. “I don’t even know where you get these crazy ideas.”
In advance of field trips, our class received routine lectures on behaving properly in public to drive home to the goyim just why we are the chosen people—and, it was silently underscored, they are not. The lectures always included pained warnings to avoid mingling with the public-school kids who would also surely be at our destination. Eager to learn what would actually happen if we were somehow drawn into an illicit conversation with them—would our souls be forever tainted?—I asked, “But why?” and was instantly reprimanded for what was perceived as disrespect instead of mere curiosity.
My own family was more tolerant, but in our regimented Orthodox life and neighborhood, goyim just didn’t come into play very much at all. When a rare non-Jewish family moved onto our block, one neighbor took it upon herself to call every Jewish parent and advise that they warn their children not to play with the new family’s children. If they feel unwelcome, she theorized, they would leave, and both property values and Orthodox Jewish ones would remain safely intact. My mother rolled her eyes when she hung up the phone, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to go up against a cabal of yentas, especially when my block had plenty of nice Jewish children for me to play with.
She needn’t have worried, though. While I was intellectually aware that the goyim of today did not really embody every Cossack and Nazi who ever existed, ambivalence toward goyim was so deeply ingrained in me from an early age that I couldn’t help but carry it with me. A wave of panic would instinctively wash over me whenever I witnessed a teenager from the public school near my house heading toward me, and I would anxiously debate whether it would appear too obvious if I suddenly crossed the street. If I stayed on course, my body remained tense until we passed each other without incident. During my summer camp’s trips to various amusement parks, I saw only hostility in the way the towheaded non-Jews, their coltish limbs clad in cut-offs, stared at my fellow campers and me, overwhelmingly dark-haired and encased in long-sleeve shirts and omnipresent denim skirts even under the blazing July sun.
These non-Jews (like boys) occupied a profoundly mysterious presence in my mind, and I maintained a deep curiosity about them. It seemed so limiting to me to be merely with those of my exact ilk, and though I had been led to believe non-Jews were a distinct people from us, I had trouble grasping why that meant something negative. Was there nothing we could learn from one another? Was there no way to transcend these differences and unite in what we might have in common? I hated the communal wariness that existed, and I was eager to circumvent the hysterical borders drawn between us and them. But I had no idea how to befriend a non-Jew, and I figured I’d need to wait until college to figure it out.
Then, early in junior year of high school, my anorexia intervened.
My hospital stay was the culmination of a months-long spiral into slow starvation. I was angry and uncomfortable with certain expectations placed on me and struggling to find a quiet way to rebel without being branded as overly troublesome, and anorexia was an unconscious way to exert control over my life and find a way to define myself independent of my observance. I was not a consummate scholar or athlete, but—as I eventually discovered—I sure was good at dieting. Too good, it turned out.
Because the hospital was on Long Island, and because the disease was an eating disorder, there were plenty of white Jewish girls from the upper-middle class there with me. Most of them were secular Jews—whom my teachers had implied might as well be goyim unless they were interested in our kiruv (Orthodox Jewish outreach) efforts. But there were also plenty of non-Jews: Asians, Latinas, and blue-eyed blondes who looked like the models on the covers of Seventeen that I began smuggling into my bedroom.
But instead of the hostile giggles or antagonistic looks I expected, the girls’ reactions to my Orthodox customs showed only genuine curiosity or complete disinterest. Sometimes my observance even inspired jealousy, as kosher meals tended to have slightly smaller portions compared to the heaping plates of food delivered to the others by the hospital’s main cafeteria. The other girls eyed me enviously as they bit into their cheesy Big Macs during the weekly “challenge meal” and I made do with a regular old tuna-fish sandwich, and they were grateful when only kosher pies were ordered during pizza challenge meals. “I can just tell there’s fewer calories in kosher pizza,” said one girl as she chewed thoughtfully. I was skeptical, but nodded along.
Other things I thought marked me as horridly foreign were simply treated as no big deal. In group therapy, when the discussion turned to boyfriends or other encounters with the opposite sex, I’d blush and turn mute, for my boldest feat concerning boys was hopelessly mooning at them through the synagogue partition. But the others were either appreciative of my breathless disbelief over what I now see were relatively mild exploits—“You make me feel so daring!” confided one—or, again, almost envious, this time of my inexperience. “I wish I didn’t have to deal with boys,” sighed another.
It took them awhile to remember why I always rebuffed their invitations to watch television on Saturdays, or why I had to drink my dairy supplement shake before eating a chicken dinner, but they accepted these things, too, without question. I made several close friends, including a Catholic college student, a Puerto Rican from a Christian family, a socialist secular Jew, and a lapsed Conservative one.
I had been fearful that my Orthodoxy would mark me as different. And it did—but to my new friends, different didn’t mean something bad or scary, but something interesting or just par for the course. Different didn’t have to have a negative connotation, like my teachers and community insisted it had to be.
Most important, it was the first time in my life where how I practiced my religion, and where I might be failing in my observance, mattered not at all. When I wore my pajama pants one day because I could no longer bear the way the waistband of my child-size denim skirt grew increasingly tighter each week, no one said anything. When I spoke of my dreams of becoming a New York Times foreign correspondent, no one smirked or asked how I would raise a Jewish family with that kind of job—dismissive responses I had grown used to receiving. When I tentatively admitted that I grappled with some of the Orthodox laws, no one looked at me disappointedly, or relegated me to a place of pity and derision. Instead, they offered their own struggles with meeting parental or communal expectations: One girl spoke anxiously of her impending quinceañera, and an army brat spoke of chafing at her military father’s disciplinarian nature.
As much of an outsider as I might have initially felt, I discovered that struggling adolescents, no matter what religion, are not so different after all. And to my surprise, it turned out that I have never felt more accepted than among people who were so outside my immediate Jewish community and social circles.
Now, at 27, I have remained friends with some of my former fellow patients; some, like me, are considered fully recovered, while others are not. I’ve befriended many non-Jewish men and women I studied with while at Brooklyn College, and my observance—which continues to this day, if in a somewhat scaled down form—has never been a hindrance in those relationships. It’s been a relief to embrace difference instead of fearing it.
And while I laugh at my naïve perspective toward non-Jews when I was younger, the unexpected ease I first felt in the hospital continues to this day. I still tend to feel more comfortable with non-Orthodox or non-Jewish friends than my more Orthodox peers, and certainly those in my former Flatbush community, so obsessed with the minutiae of observance that regulates nearly every aspect of Orthodox life that the core identities of its practitioners often got lost amid the intricacies.
People in the Jewish communities where I have lived are fixated on placing people into neat boxes, and I have frequently sat through Shabbat meals or carpool rides listening to hour-long debates that focus on whether this Jew is frum or not because he did or said X, Y, or Z, or exhaustive conversations on semantics of which external actions or sartorial accessories mark which Jew as precisely what. If you fail to fit an exact mold, people often act embarrassed for you, as if to demand you feel some sense of humiliation for being too unwieldy to define with a clear label.
In the hospital, it was a liberating and unprecedented experience to be able to speak my mind and know that I wouldn’t be looked at or valued differently because of it. And maybe it was because my hospital friends just didn’t know what to judge me on, or were too busy obsessing over other trivial things, like the calories in a single pretzel twist or whether our prominent sternums had visibly receded at all following the consumption of breakfast, that they didn’t bother to note or care how I observed—but I don’t think so. Without such an emphasis on religious observance, they were able to look first to who I was, and not to how I observed. Too often in the Orthodox world, one is judged first in observance, and only then, if at all, as the person behind it.
I am not the sum total of my Orthodox observance, and ironically, it has most often been those who are not Orthodox or even Jewish at all who understand that better than anyone.
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Tova Ross is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Huffington Post, and she is also a contributing blogger to Kveller.com. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Follow her on Twitter @tovamos
Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.