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: 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)