After a long plane ride and all the feelings of regret I had for coming to Israel, I told myself, Laleh, try to make the best of this trip, and if in two days you still don’t want to be here, you can book a flight back home.
As the sun was setting that first night in Israel, we finally got to a house in Ramat Eshkol, where I and 23 other girls would be staying.
After I dragged my heavy luggage into the bedroom that I would share with three friends, I began to feel a sense of comfort and tranquility. I showered, put on my pajamas, and went straight to bed. The next morning, everything started falling into place.
I woke up and was inspired to have a new attitude. I decided to approach the trip as a journalist, and make it my own Israel learning adventure. This meant I would:
- Listen to what the teachers are saying and try to understand the lectures from a non-judgmental perspective.
- I would not hold back my questions, and would ask in a respectful manner.
- If I did not like the answers, I would ask myself why it bothered me and examine if the issue was my inner insecurity or an objective, rational difficulty with what they were saying.
- In the final analysis, I would have the choice to take what I like and disregard what I didn’t like. I finally understood that Judaism is not all or nothing.
This frame of mind gave me the freedom to enjoy the journey of exploring my heritage in a fun, exciting environment. There was no pressure or obligation.
It allowed me to open up to learn and understand.
Wearing our clubbing outfits, we walked through Mea Shearim.
Later that night the girls and I decided to go to Ben Yehuda Street for a fun night out. Ben Yehuda is like the Hollywood of Israel. People go there to mingle, party, and bar hop. A bunch of us girls got all dolled up for the night. I was wearing my clubbing outfit. Since it was such nice warm evening, we decided to walk there, ignoring our madricha's warning not to walk through Mea Shearim.
Mea Shearim is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and is populated mainly by 'ultra-orthodox' Hareidi Jews. I had heard rumors that if a woman walked down their streets wearing revealing clothing that she would be stoned.
So there we were, trucking down the streets of Mea Shearim, and I asked the girls, “What is wrong with these men? Why aren’t they looking at us? If we were in L.A. they would all be hooting and hollering!"
The religious people started shifting from our side of the street to the other. I started to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. I felt totally out of place and became very defensive. I was just waiting for some religious man to make a comment about me or my skimpy apparel, curse at us, or throw something at us. I was ready to fight back!
To my surprise, no one made a comment. No one threw rocks at us. In fact, hardly anyone even looked at us. I was shocked. My assumptions about how these orthodox Jews would treat us were being proven wrong right in front of my eyes.
Finally one person did come up to us – an ultra orthodox woman in her 50s. She talked to us for a few minutes. “Shalom girls," she said, "my name is Shoshana. I just want to let you know that you are all truly beautiful young women. You do not need to dress this way because you have beautiful souls and if you cover up your physical body, your inner beauty will shine. Please, at the very least, respect our neighborhood.”
Now these were not her exact words, but looking back, this was the main message she was attempting to convey to us that night.
But I was furious. “How rude of this woman to tell us how we should dress!”
"Why are you so angry?" one of my friends asked me.
“Why can't these people just leave us alone!" I screamed back. "I don’t tell them how to live, and they shouldn’t tell me how to live either!"
"Laleh, this woman was not attacking us," my good friend, Sola, said. "She was on our side. She was telling us how amazing we are. She said that we are God’s children. She was sweet, and actually cared about us.”
I calmed down and after a few moments of thinking to myself and examining my feelings, I realized why I was so angry. Deep down in my heart I knew Shoshana was right.
She was trying to show us how much she cared, and I was rejecting her. She was trying to make us feel that despite our level of religiosity (or lack thereof), we are still part of the Jewish family. But I was shutting her out. I was letting my past experiences and assumptions about religious Jews blind me.
I was pushing away the same things I had been searching for throughout my life: acceptance, understanding, and a sense of love and belonging with my fellow Jews.
If anyone was being rude, it was me. I know that when you step foot into another culture, the decent thing to do is to respect their way of life. A journalist is a master of this!
I began to realize how pathetic that my external, physical looks were the initial priority, not my personality, not my intelligence, not my soul.
I would never walk into a Japanese family’s home without taking off my shoes first. I would never say “no” to the offering of my Persian grandmother’s delicious ghormeh sabzi, or chai sheereeni. I would avoid at all costs the chance of disrespecting their customs, values and norms. I would never be so inconsiderate, so why didn’t I understand or accept that I am in an ultra religious neighborhood, and the right thing to do was to cover up a little more in order to show respect?
Shoshana challenged the way I was looking at myself. I was used to thinking that the best way to attract a great guy was to INITIALLY bedazzle him with my looks, and after getting to know me, he would come to realize I also had a great personality and a unique inner beauty. I began to realize how pathetic that my external, physical looks were the initial priority, not my personality, not my intelligence, not my values, not my soul.
The rest of the night I felt naked. I felt cheap. I promised myself that I would respect myself and dress only in clothing that I felt completely comfortable in. I did not want to have to keep readjusting my tube top. I did not want to have to keep pulling down my shorts when they hiked up, and I did not want to be focused on my clothing and on my body. I wanted people to see me for my soul, which was the most beautiful part of me. Shoshana was right, and I was touched by her kind words of wisdom.
Since then I challenge myself every morning to dress more modestly and to let my beauty shine from within.