Question & Answer With Neil Harris Of Modern Uberdox - Like Our Enemies
A Simple Jew asks:
We view as shameful and despicable the actions of Hamas or Hezbollah terrorists who fire their weapons and then melt back into the civilian population and hide amongst women and children. Yet, there are times we too try to conceal traces our real identities - our Jewishness - so as not to stand out among those who are different from us. There are times when we want to be Jews and then there are times we just want to be plain human beings. In our desire for concealment - our desire to melt back into the civilian population - are we any different from our enemies?
Neil Harris of Modern Uberdox responds:
I find this question of identity and concealment a tough one. In fact, I’ve sort of gone in a backwards full circle. When I became religious (at the age of 16, almost 20 years ago) I was part of a "punk/alternative" sub-culture that valued individualism, rebellion, and self-expression through all the external trappings we could wear and spray in our hair. Not to "to stand out among those who are different from us" was the last thing on my youthful mind. Ironically, now I’m just as comfortable looking like everyone else on any given Shabbos. There is, in my opinion, a fine line between wanting to "melt into the civilian population" (fit into the secular world) and maintaining a strong identity as a Torah observant Jew.
"Yet, there are times we too try to conceal traces of our real identities - our Jewishness - so as not to stand out among those who are different from us." There is a trend among some Baalei Teshuva to change their name (based on the second chapter of the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuva). While, I have not done so, I have many friends who have. One’s Jewish name can help one keep their Jewish identity with society. Of course, the other side of the story is the trend among some Torah observant Jews to switch from their Jewish names to English versions while involved in secular society. Examples of this would be Akiva becomes Kevin, or Yaakov becomes Jake. There are plenty of reasons why some people do this, but the issue of what name to go by is really off the topic of your true question.
We are different, though. Even from an external point view we are different. For males, there’s the issue of tzitzis. You can either wear them in our out. Wearing a yarmulke is another issue. By wearing one it’s kind of a hint that you’re an observant Jew. Of course you could put on that trusty old baseball cap. This is a great way to hide your Jewishness. There has been many a time that I’ve been driving from the Midwest to NY and seen a fellow Jew at a rest-stop dressed "undercover" with a Yankees cap and his peyos just flying out of control. I usually give him that "hey, what’s up" nod of my head and say, "Shalom Aleychem". He, in turn, gives me that look that says, "man, how’d you figure me out?" Baseball caps are good for baseball and keeping the rain off your glasses.
For females, it might be easier to blend into society. Skirts are back in style, which is a good thing.
"…so as not to stand out among those who are different from us?" I think that in a college or work environment there are times when, as you wrote, we want to not bring attention to ourselves. We want to find common ground among those we spend time with. One of the best mediums for that common ground is pop culture.
"There are times when we want to be Jews and then there are times we just want to be plain human beings". It could be that when we discuss what we did over "the weekend" we want to relate to others as "plain human beings". Many find ways to do this by staying on top of music, literature, TV, or movies. Are these not things that "plain human beings" involve themselves with?
The problem (it’s really not a problem) as I see it is that the Torah observant individual isn’t a "plain human being". I can’t speak for everyone, but as a Baal Teshuva I believe that I when I chose to become observant, the role of being a "plan human being" sort of got overwritten after time with the role of being a Jew and living in the world as a Jew. This is an important nuance in how we live as Jews. Is going to a baseball game a form of just wanting to be a "plain human being"? What about letting your kids play in organized sports? What about eating two chocolate chip cookies when you really only should have one? With the example of organized sports, I think there’s a lot of merit in teaching teamwork and good sportsmanship to children. Letting your child realize that you can play a game like a mensch is a valuable lesson.
In our desire for concealment - our desire to melt back into the civilian population - are we any different from our enemies? This is the real question, isn’t it? Are we different than Hamas and Hezbollah? Well, they are terrorists, as you pointed out. In light of the events that have taken place recently in Israel, this example hits home. It hits hard. Maybe that’s the point. The goal of these terrorists is to destroy Jewish lives.
Knowing who you are should, in theory, be the easiest thing in the world to do. We’re with ourselves 24/7. To remind yourself that you’re a Jew, and a child of the King of Kings isn’t always so easy. I wrote in the beginning about a fine line between wanting to "melt into the civilian population" (fit into the secular world) and maintaining a strong identity as a Torah observant Jew. If one chooses to "melt back into the civilian population" in order to forget their own connection to Hashem, then I think we’re a lot more similar to our enemies that we’d like to admit.