Frumgirl 4: Species, a Study

There are several species of Jews to be found in secular college. I’ve been astonished and entertained as I stumbled across each variation in its turn, and I document them here for inspection.

Before my first major-studies class, I checked the roster and noticed a distinctly Jewish (and religious) male name. I was excited, because here would be someone else at my side in case we needed to negotiate holidays or similar matters. But after scouring the class for several periods, I sadly concluded that he must have dropped out.

He didn’t, but I wouldn’t have recognized him in a million years without a formal introduction. Forget the button-down shirt his name seemed to require, he didn’t bother with a yarmulke. I know that is quite common on the MO spectrum, but I had thought that all but the most borderline refrained from sinking their teeth into meat they know isn’t kosher. This fellow seems determined to have the best of both worlds. As such, he showed his first interest in kosher food when it was ordered specially for the religious students, but immediately abandoned it when he saw that it was not, in fact, better than the standard fare. He associates almost exclusively with non-Jews, preferring the sort of discourse men once held in reserve until after the women withdrew to the drawing room. He happily piggy-backs on any arrangements made for religious students, and, to my amusement, briefly sprouted a yarmulke when a young and unattached religious woman spoke on campus.

This Fence Straddler is not to be confused with the average modern orthodox student. These are, at first glance difficult to discern as Jewish, but they identify strongly as such. “Didn’t you realize I was Jewish?” asked one colleague, dressed in leggings and a cap-sleeve t-shirt, in complete surprise. Um, no. What was supposed to tip me off? The baseball cap that never left her boyfriend’s head was more of a hint. They do not go near the meat on any buffet, and seek out the company of other Jews. They frequently become involved in communal and humanitarian activities.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the Jewish Press Jew. The title says it all. Any conversation with this student is bound to end in one of two subjects: how Jews are God’s gift to humanity, or Israel. To the Jewish Press Jew, there is nothing else in the world aside from the Chosen Nation in general, and their Mediterranean state in particular. Did you read an article in the New York Times this morning? The JP Jew didn’t, because the NYT is anti-Israel. Are you going to a conference at the UN? The JP Jew wouldn’t; they’re just a glorified gang out to persecute Jews. Is a Nobel Prize winner coming to speak? He’s Jewish, you know, as are 33% of Nobel Prize winners. You studied three chapters for the test on November 27? The JP Jew was glued to the internet, waiting for updates on the status of the Holtzbergs. Is the test scheduled for the week before Pesach? This Jew will wrangle to have it moved because of pre-Pesach preparations.

The Jewish Press Jew needs to be differentiated from the standard-issue centrist/ultra orthodox student. These tend to be less concerned with Israeli politics and more concerned with simply getting their degree as quickly as possible, preferably with honors. They are often startled by how clueless the greater world is of Jewish religious requirements and customs and will make a stir if necessary, but otherwise keep it under their yarmulkes. They easily approach any other religious students for favors as if they’ve known them forever when they’ve never even spoken before. They befriend non-Jewish students on a superficial level, reserving their non-college life predominantly for their Jewish/religious friends.

Published in: on February 10, 2009 at 12:13 AM  Comments (13)  

Frumgirl 4: Punk and Pak

FrumPunk’s comment in “so you want to be a blogger” about frum students marveling over befriending Muslim classmates left me feeling left out. I have not befriended a single Muslim.

Ironically, it’s not for lack of trying. The gaggle of Pakistani Muslim girls in my class were the first to whom I made overtures of friendship. It seemed logical to me that they’d be used to the same style of society that I was, and we’d therefore have something in common.

The problem is, most of them are of the wannabe off-the-derechnik type, and I’ve never really enjoyed the same pastimes as the people in that demographic.

Don’t get me wrong – I read Seventeen and Cosmogirl in my early teen summers, and I remember when Jason of N’Sync (or was it 98 Degrees?) wore a skirt on stage, but it was never more than an anthropological interest. I read about celebrities like I read the plaque outside the cages in a zoo. I follow styles from a distance, with raised eyebrows. I think of makeup as a utility, not a hobby. I don’t live vicariously through other people’s hairy dating stories. And so on.

A friend of mine from summer camp didn’t either get the whole deal and used to join the magazine flippers in their daily flip-and-squeal armed with a National Geographic. Whenever one of them would squeal “Oh he’s sooo cute,” and all the others would rush to see whose picture she was looking at, my friend would also squeal “He’s sooo cute,” and bring them rushing to her – where she’d be gazing adoringly at a koala bear.

Sitting in a club office working on business, with a bunch of Pakkies behind me comparing their Pollywood (or whatever they call their star scene down there) crushes on YouTube, I was temped, very tempted, to dig up the video of the sneezing panda baby and give a few infatuated sighs over it. But that’s not my style. Instead I just wondered why they hadn’t grown out of this type of thing already.

In contrast, the religious Muslim girls are quite sweet. There used to be three, but the one in my year seems to have dropped out; maybe she got married. Anyway, the other two aren’t in any of my classes, and they tend to surround themselves with others of their culture, even when they’re “off the derech” (maybe they want to do kiruv?). Both are exceptionally nice to me when we meet-up (just because I’m Jewish? Very likely), but that isn’t frequently. And that, FrumPunk, is why this Frumgirl can’t brag of having any Muslim friends.

I feel truly deprived.

Published in: on November 24, 2008 at 4:36 PM  Comments (12)  

Frumgirl 4: Am I Really Listening to This?

We’re in the lounge counting money from a recent fund raiser.
Joane: Oh I probably shouldn’t be counting the money on the table.
Everyone else: Oh yeah, well…
Me: What?
Joe: I don’t think I heard of that one.
Me: What one?
Joane: It’s a christian thing, I think. You’re not supposed to count your money on the table.
Me: Where else would you count it?
Jane: …I thought it was just keys?
Me: No keys on the table? (whips out keys and drops them on the table) What happens now? Seven years of bad luck?
All: (horrified stares) How could you?
Me: What? (looks around table and counts: 2 irreligious Jews, 1 half-Jew agnostic, 1 atheist, 1 christian, 5 college-educated students, 5 horrified expressions)
Joe: I heard of it with food. You don’t throw or waste food because –
Joane: Because you’re Jewish.
Joe: No, because then you don’t deserve to have it. And don’t give me that “cheap Jew” business.
Joane: Well you said –
Joe: – Because I’m the least cheap person I know, Jewish or not.
Joane: Ok, ok, calm down. You’re right. And really. I like Jews. I’m half Jewish. Some of my best friends are Jews.
Joe: Yeah, well I don’t like being called a cheap Jew.
Joane: You’re not. OK?
(Calm resumes. After which I cheaply and uniquely request repayment for funds I laid out. Sorry Joe, but I’m a cheap Jew and proud of it. I prefer not to spend my money, so I have more of it to give away. And let the others think what they will.)

I suppose I should have interjected something about respecting and being grateful to those that support you, but I was rather shocked and the argument was fierce and fast. Or maybe I’m just chicken? Sometimes I wonder to what extent I should be playing Defender of the Faith to non-Jews and kiruv rebbetzin to Jews.

Published in: on November 12, 2008 at 2:28 PM  Comments (3)  

Frumgirl 4: It’s Good to be of Use…

Class hasn’t yet begun, so everyone is sitting around saying hello, making fun of each other, and generally socializing. In the midst of it all, a black guy in the row behind me give me a scrutinizing look, leans forward and asks, voice dropped very low, “Are you Jewish?”

“What?” I asked, startled.

“Are you – ” his voice drops another few decibels, “Jewish?”

“Oh, yeah,” I smile to put him at ease, since he seems to feel like he’s just done something terrible. “Why?”

“Do you know if that woman, whats-her-face, won the primaries?”

Momentary confusion: Hilary Clinton very definitely lost. Then I realized he must mean the Israeli primaries. Whats-her-face being Livni. “Yeah, she did.”

“Yes!” He gave a little victory punch. Conversation terminated. I’m sure there’s some significance to this that I’m missing (not follwoing Israeli politics as much as this guy does), but I don’t know what.

Published in: on September 25, 2008 at 10:10 PM  Comments (4)  

Frumgirl 4: Unexpected Conversation

The elevator emptied out as we approached the top floors, until there was just me and a chunky Asian inside, and only “seven” glowing on the panel. I don’t know his name, but let’s call him Jin, in keeping with the Jo- crowd.

Jin looks at the panel, looks at me and conveys that he would like to know if I too am heading to the seventh floor, or should he press another button for me? I say “convey” because his speech was slow and halting and the communication wasn’t necessarily all vocal. I responded that seven was exactly where I was heading, thanks.

He hesitated and then started expressing himself again. “Is – that – Jewish – clothing?” He gestures at my ensemble.

Momentarily taken aback, I reply, “Yes, it is. I mean, the clothing is from all over, but the look is definitely Jewish.”

He digested that for a moment while I digested his question. Asians are not very savvy about Judaism, if they know it exists at all. They’re not terribly savvy on western religions in general. Heck, the average Chinaman thinks the main difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the mascot: fat man in red pajamas with a tree versus sober men in black and buckles with a turkey. Religion doesn’t come into it. So I asked the natural follow-up question:

“How do you know about Jewish dress?”

“I – live – in – Borough – Park.”

Aaaah. Well, that explains things.

“You – don’t – wear – a -” Jin makes a gesture of putting a bowl on his head – “hat?”

“No,” was my uncomprehending answer. “The men get the hats, the women get the skirts.” Only later did I realize that me probably meant a turban or shpitzel or whatever they all wear in BP. At any rate, he mulled that over a second and then got out, “I think – that it – is – very – nice.”

That surprised me. I mean, you don’t hear that very often, even from people like Joe, and obviously he’s his own case. “I think so too,” I said, for lack of anything else popping to mind. Well whattaya know.

Published in: on September 11, 2008 at 11:51 AM  Comments (7)  

Frumgirl 4: Tricky

There is nothing more unpredictable than the irreligious Jew. Their wide-ranging knowledge (generously peppered with gross blank spots) and an amused approach to halacha can lead to some entertaining and tricky situations.

Entertaining I: Joe derides his irreligious relatives for getting star-of-David tattoos and refraining from eating pork on Saturdays. Then, he double checks that there’s no ham in the meat-and-cheese salad his friend offers him. I give an astounded snort but decide that there’s nothing to be gained by arguing the logic.

Entertaining II: Joe locks horns with Joseph on the matter of heaven and hell. He claims the Jewish God is far more benevolent than the Christian because there’s no Jewish hell and you can get a second chance after you die. “For me, afterlife is about how close or far I am to God,” he boasts. “None of that gruesome Dante stuff.” Then he details to me how likely it is that the Torah was written by aliens, and the events therein occasioned by an extraterrestrial specie. I suggest that he watches too much TV, and maybe he should try reading “the good book” in the original, for once. He tells me that he has a gold-inlaid copy in his room, but can’t read a word.

Tricky I: Joe rests his hand on my USB flash drive when I reach to take it out of the computer.
I learned in Israel, when trying to get on the bus to Tel Aviv, that it doesn’t pay to let obnoxious irreligious guys use shomer negiya against you. It is important to very quickly let them know that the playing field is still level. So I reached for my metal thermos and held it casually by the cap. “Three options,” I said sternly. “You give my my drive, you move your hand so I can take it myself, or I hit you over the head with this and then take it.” He eyed the bottle and withdrew his hand. I only had to do that twice more before he gave up the prank completely.

Tricky II: Joe leans back, looks at me speculatively, and says, “Gosh, we’ve been working on this together for four weeks already. We should be best friends by now.” The obvious tack is to make a joke out of it, which I do: “Nope – I’ve never become best friends in less than six weeks.” And “Send in your application – I’ll have my secretary look at it.” Problem is, he does want to be friends. I’ve received casual invitations to purely fun outings, so it would be best to put things straight right off the bat and avoid any misunderstandings. So when six weeks are up and he asks if we can be best friends now, I give a little smile and say, “I’ve only got room in my circles for one male best friend, and he’s got to give me a diamond ring.” Well, that set him back a bit, but only temporarily. “How about just friends, then?” he asks. “Only as candidates for best friend,” I answer. He looks terrified. “You do realize I’m kidding, right?” he asks.
“Getting scared when I call your bluff?” I taunt.
That settled, he turns the matter over in his mind. “So you don’t have any guy friends?!”
“You don’t have anything to do with guys?”
“Not much.”
“That’s just…wild! How do you manage?”
“From what I’ve seen of men,” I retort tartly, “I don’t think I’ve been missing much.”
He knows I’m referring to some of his more repulsive and peculiarly male habits, and is silent for a moment.
“Well, what does that make me – an acquaintance?”
“A colleague.” Then, because he looked so down, I added, “A valued colleague, a useful colleague, and a colleague whose company is pleasant, but a colleague nonetheless. I’ve never treated you any differently, have I?” With the possible exception of offering to brain him with a metal bottle, this was categorically true, and he acknowledged it. “But you’ll still be around after the summer, right? I mean, you’re a good person to know,” he said.
“And you’re a useful person to know, so, yes, of course I’ll keep you around.”
That seemed to leave things on good terms, and the topic was only revisited when Joe commented that a diamond ring was pretty cheap; most of the women in his community want cars, swimming pools, and vacation homes. I decided it wasn’t the time or place to explain kollel standards.

That little chat turned out to be the right move – it’s handy to have someone around who understands some of your weirdness. Only a few weeks later, a few of my summer “colleagues” were planning a group outing. Joe, realizing that I would rather not attend, jokingly informed me that I was not welcome to join. I retorted that I wouldn’t want to spend the afternoon with him anyway. The other students looked confused, but were too polite to ask any questions. So I retired to the library, saved from the necessity of quick thinking, and they hit the Big Apple without me.

Published in: on August 24, 2008 at 12:26 AM  Comments (6)  

Frumgirl 4: Kosher Catechism

Non-Jews seem obsessed with kashrus.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the idea of being limited in what you can eat. After all, most of what they know about kashrus is that I’m not eating things. None of them have ever experienced the cornucopia of the kosher supermarket. They often wonder how I don’t starve.


Joseph: You know, with us Christians, if we eat something wrong when we’re away, we just get re-baptized when we get back.

Me: Um… Judaism is a way of life, not a hobby. There’s no instant purification process.

Joseph: What if you get stuck somewhere and you can’t find anything kosher to eat?

Me: Have you ever heard of Chabad? (blank look from Joseph) There’s always fruit and vegetables.

Joseph: What if you can’t find any?

Me: Then you don’t eat.

Joseph: What if it’s for a long time?

Me: You still don’t eat.

Joseph: What if you’re going to starve?

Me: Don’t go there. Or leave.

Joseph: What if you can’t?

Me: Then you eat the least non-kosher thing you can find.

Joseph: And when that runs out?

Me: The rule is that you don’t eat non-kosher, but an even bigger rule is that you don’t die.

Joey: How do you know when something is kosher?

Me: There’s this little symbol over here – it means the company paid a rabbi to come in and check out their factory and make sure everything is kosher.

Joey: Can’t you just tell from the ingredients?

Me: Not when there are secret ingredients. Plus, the machinery has to be kosher.

Joey: The machinery? Wow.

Joe: How do you know the plastic fork is kosher?

Me: I’m assuming it’s never been used – American sanitary laws.

Joe: What if I got you one and I spit on it?

Me: That would be pretty gross, but your spit is kosher.

Joe: What if I did this? (he grinds the fork into the counter)

Me: (examining the fork and finding nothing) That would be very low of you, but it’s still kosher.

Joe: Why? You don’t know what might have stuck.

Me: If it isn’t visible to the naked eye, it’s as good as not there.

Joe: Aah, that’s cheating!

Me: Do vegans breathe animal dust? Are bacteria kosher? I’m not a Jainist, I’m a Jew.

Joseph: My fruit juice has a K on it. You can drink it.

Me: No – ‘K’ is just a letter of the alphabet. It doesn’t mean anything. Anyone can put a K on their packaging. Or a B or a G or a Z.

Joseph: It means everything is kosher.

Me: It means the company thinks everything is kosher. Do you trust a car salesman? Take legal advice from a truck driver? There are books as thick as your arm on kashrus. I don’t think Dole knows what kosher is.

(brief certification introduction)

Joseph: Isn’t it wrong for these rabbis to make a business out of your needs?

Me: It’s not a business, it’s a service. I want to eat Oreos, and Nabisco wants me to buy them. The rabbi just makes that possible. Believe me – he’d rather be studying.

Joseph: No – he’s taking advantage! Because you only buy the products with the symbol on it.

Me: If that symbol wasn’t there, I wouldn’t buy it.

Joseph: If there were no symbols on any food, what would you eat?

Me: I’d do what my grandparents did – make it myself.

Joe: Just because a store is owned by a Jew, you trust his food?

Me: No. On the wall there’s a piece of paper certifying his food as kosher, with the name of the certifying rabbi, so you can check up who he is and if you trust him.

Joe: Wow. You guys have major trust issues.

Maybe. Or maybe we just understand human nature. But I wasn’t going to tell him that even Jews will sell other Jews non-kosher for a quick buck. So I just shrugged and laughed.

Published in: on August 7, 2008 at 6:29 PM  Comments (6)  

Frumgirl 4: Just in Case You Wondered

A nice thing about attending a secular college: it reminds you why you’re not secular. And I’m not just referring to the many times my Jewish-but-irreligious lab partner tells me how he firmly believes that Jews get kicked around when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do – while he’s downloading porn. Take these transcripts from one lunch session:

Scene: Cafeteria. Frumgirl4 is IMing a friend and eating rice-cakes and string cheese while Joe, Joseph, and Joey yak and eat cheeseburgers. Suddenly, Joe’s gaze strays out the door to the elevator bank and he shouts

Joe: OHMIGOSH! Did you see that hottie?!

Joey and Joseph turn curiously to look out at the elevator bank while Joe goes on.

She is so hot! Check out those legs! Can you see her?

Joey and Joseph don’t see anyone especially hot and turn to look back at Joe.

Oh, you guys missed her! She was hot. She was so burning hot she was on fire!

Joey: Well then she can’t have been a science student. Laughter all around, then Joey realizes that there’s a science girl at the table. Oh – ah – sorry, I didn’t mean…

Frumgirl4: pauses in her laughing to reassure him: S’ok – I thought it was funny too.

Joe: picks up where he left off. Did you see those shorts? Did you see those shorts?! I didn’t see those shorts. They were so small I saw right through them –

At this point Frumgirl4 peers over the top of her screen to shoot Joe a dirty look while Joseph, a devout Christian, looks uncomfortable. Joe slows down.

You think maybe I shouldn’t be talking about girls this way? He asks, turning the idea over in his head. Nah, if they dress like that, they’re just asking for it! Joey laughs in agreement. Because you guys – she was hot!

The girl was actually a student at the summer program run for high school kids, and there were plenty more running around. Once, I told Joe outright to stop being a perv and keep his eyes on his sandwich. “Why?” he asked. “If they mind, they should just dress like you.”

Well, yes, but…

And again, at the same time, it’s nice to know that my skirt is impermeable enough to stymie the biggest skirt-chaser I have the pleasure of knowing.

Published in: on August 6, 2008 at 5:16 PM  Comments (7)  

Frumgirl 4: Everything’s on Saturday

It is. Everything extracurricular in this private college, I mean. If it isn’t Saturday, then it’s Friday evening. And I’m getting the impression that this is indicative of the greater world outside. It’s an odd situation for me.

For me, the disappointment is fleeting, and I don’t just mean over the fact that I can’t compete in the talent show or join the drama club. I did want to be an orientation leader, but if the training is on Saturday, I can do without it. It’s like taking a slice of pizza and then discovering that it’s full of cyanide. Yeah, you’re not happy to put it down, but you’re not very upset either.

My colleagues don’t get that. They schedule their networking dinner for Friday evening and their club sports day picnic for Saturday afternoon and then, when they announce it, scan the table, see my face, and get distraught. They completely forgot – I can’t make it.

Not that they’d reschedule just for my convenience. But they still feel guilty. On my part, I probably would attend these events if they were at a more convenient time, but oh well, I’m not shedding any tears.

The only other frum girl in my program is an upperclassman, and whenever she attends a food-event, she tends to pick at the grapes or just sip a Dasani. One of her classmates gets very distressed when he sees she’s the only person not eating. Invariably, he’ll discover a bag of nachos chips in his knapsack that happens to have a hechsher on it, and try to press it upon her. I think that’s very decent of him, but I’ve decided to forestall such classmate advances by bringing my own muffin in the future.

My next challenge: the industry national convention this fall. It’s a week long, but the points of interest are over the weekend. The local chapter president has his plans all planned: two hotel rooms, one for four girls, one for four guys. And I know he’s counting me as one of the girls.

I’m only a sophomore and not terribly good at buttonhole-networking, so I don’t think it’d be a catastrophe if I missed the convention. Plus it’s around holidays, so I’ll be studying like crazy. Alternatively, I could go to someone in Philadelphia for Shabbos, and join them at the convention on Sunday. But that compromise would probably upset the president more than complete non-attendance, because I “won’t be getting the full experience.”

God help me with well-meaning people. I have nothing against them when they’re trying to be helpful, but when they’re not…

Published in: on August 3, 2008 at 5:51 PM  Comments (2)  

Frumgirl 4

One of the big things you notice when you go from a lifetime of single-sex education to co-ed is the male specie. Mostly, how much space they take up. Physically and otherwise. I’m not short, and I’m not used to looking up so much. My default head position is straight ahead, but I’m finding myself talking to quite a number of navels these days. It’s really astonishing how tall they can get. My head sometimes doesn’t even reach their shoulders!

And between their egos and their overconfidence, honestly, it leaves little space in the room for the rest of us. The way they jeer when someone doesn’t understand something they do (“That’s so easy”) and are always positive they’re going to succeed (“Why bother studying? It’s only a test on nuclear physics”). The male specie is absolutely fascinating. I’m so glad to now have the opportunity study them more closely.

Published in: on May 4, 2008 at 1:08 PM  Comments (3)  

Frumgirl 4: The Secret Code of Skirts

It was my second week in this college and someone called down the hall, “Who are you?”

I blinked twice. She was wearing a knee-length denim skirt and a ¾ sleeve shirt. Ah. A fellow alien.

We swapped names. We actually knew each other vaguely from before; I’d networked to her through Facebook, but we’d never spoken or met. “I was wondering-because there aren’t that many people in skirts around here,” she explained.

She was right. Besides me and her, there were exactly two other skirts in the entire college.

To other Jews and to people who know about religious Jews, the skirt is a dead giveaway. I remember once when a bunch of us visited the USS WASP during Fleet Week; we got so many comments from people who just wanted to show off that they recognized that we were Jewish, that we eventually decided to behave.

But here in a technical college, Jews are a rare breed, religious ones still rarer. We’re talking about a college that schedules all extracurricular activities for Friday night, is careful to keep things vegetarian for the Indians, and is draped in red the week of Chinese New Year, but only stocks three kosher sandwiches in the cafeteria on odd days of the week. In a nerd college where you’re very likely to find guys with their bottle-green pants cinched high on their waists, the skirt probably strikes most as just another non-fashion statement.

But for those of us in the know, it’s a secret code.

That was how I found my second compatriot. I stepped into the elevator and noticed a long skirt. The wearer noticed the length of mine at the same time. “Oh!” we both said, and turned to look at each other. To observers, it must have looked like two friends bumping into each other. To listeners, it must have seemed exceedingly weird. “What’s your name? What are you studying? How long have you been here?” we swapped stats like people who just discovered that they should be long-lost friends.

The Bagel Effect, someone once called it. You gotta love it.

I take the elevator down from lab at around 7pm every Wednesday. Around the same time, a faculty husband is taking it to his wife’s office. Generally exhausted after three hours of collecting erroneous data, I would never pay him an ounce of mind if he hadn’t once eyed my hemline and asked, “Mah nishma?” My drooping eyelids snapped open and we held an amicable conversation for the 20 seconds it took to reach his floor. Now we greet each other whenever our timing coincides again.

An interesting way to find friends, but hey, whatever works.

Sometimes, unfortunately, the code breaks down. There’s a woman in one of the offices who wears skirts just past her knees. Even more likely, she often wears skirt-suits that you can find in Boro Park. And yet not once has she so much as glanced my way as I passed. Is she a fellow alien, or an odd dresser from some other planet entirely? I don’t know.

Published in: on April 28, 2008 at 10:34 AM  Comments (5)