Let me tell you about myself, who I am. I wear a big black velvet yarmulke and I have a beard. Not a long beard. A short trimmed beard, but a beard nevertheless. I wear a suit and a white shirt and a tie on Shabbos, and sometimes during the week I wear a white shirt. Sometimes I wear a colored shirt. Long ago I wore a kippa sruga, and then a black suede yarmulke, but I won’t bore you with the details of why I changed. I rarely wear a black hat, though I do own one.
Well, now you know everything there is to know about me. Nothing else but the aforementioned short description bears any significance in describing who I am. What I think, what I believe, how I behave – none of these matters in the least, because you have defined me, categorized me, pigeonholed me into a little niche in the spectrum of frumkeit.
“He’s further to the right.” “Further to the left.” “Too modern. “Too frum.” What’s in my head is vastly less significant than what’s on it.
Last year I went to an out-of-town simcha where all the men wore kippot srugot and none of the ladies covered their hair. I attempted to make conversation with the stranger seated beside me, but something was wrong. He was icy, distant, giving one-word answers to my questions. After a few minutes of this, I went upstairs to my room and took off my jacket and tie. When I returned, a marked change came over my dinner companion. He became sociable and friendly. He was genuinely interested in talking to me and hearing what I had to say, simply because I had taken off my jacket and tie.
Doesn’t it bother anyone how superficial we’ve become? Look at how fragmented our tiny nation is – chassidish, Litvish, yeshivish, Modern Orthodox, all looking at one another and saying, “I don’t want to talk to that guy.”
I don’t mean to imply that prejudice is limited to one group or another. We’re all guilty of making judgments about our fellow Jews based on their appearance. But we were supposed to have moved past that so long ago. Didn’t the Civil Rights movement teach us to judge people “not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character”? That was 40 years ago! Haven’t we learned anything in all that time?
(For those of you too frum to listen to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Rabbi Meir said the same thing in Pirkei Avos about 1,800 years earlier.)
Several years ago my wife (who wears a sheitel) got a ride to a dinner with a woman who does not cover her hair. The hostility in the car was palpable. “Why are you going to a dinner for American Friends of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva?” asked the other woman. The implication, of course, was that such events are closed to sheitel wearers. In fact, both my wife’s brother and I had attended Bnei Akiva yeshivot, but my wife was not going to win with this lady. Out of my graduating class of 80 at Yeshivat Nehalim, 79 went to Hesder Yeshiva or Yeshiva Govoha. One went directly to the army. Most of the people at the dinner were probably not aware of this. They thought that “Bnei Akiva” means “bash the black hats.”
Just consider the insanity of the shidduch scene:
“Tell me about the boy.”
“Well, he wears a black hat on Shabbos, but not during the week.”
“Forget it, I’ve heard enough. Nisht far mir.”
What is happening to us Jews? New sub-sects are constantly springing up among us, new rifts and chasms are dividing us. But the worst part of it is that these differences are based on the most superficial trivialities. The hair, the beard, the hat, the peyos, the shtreimel, the kapote, the shirt, the tie… Is all this really important? If we judge each other, if we define one another by such nonsense, how can we take ourselves seriously? How can we expect the rest of the world to take us seriously, as a nation?