Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Same

I recently accepted some freelance work from an old shul acquaintance of mine, Brandy, and we spent a few hours working very closely together. I really like Brandy and I think she likes me. We were in a meeting last week and I was describing a concert that my husband and I recently attended, and Brandy looked up at me and said "why don't we ever hang out? We should go out sometime!" "Yes!" I enthusiastically replied. "Let's do something!"

We both genuinely meant it at the time, even though I knew, I just knew that it was highly unlikely we would ever actually get together. Brandy and I, though we had a lot in common, had completely different social circles. I thought about that, and wondered why. We went to the same synagogue. We lived in the same area. She was very funny and fun and we had a great deal of overlap in our lives. And then it hit me. And I didn't like it. Brandy and I both consider ourselves Modern Orthodox, but we are clearly at opposite halachic ends of the spectrum of MO. Brandy and I had minor religious differences. These religious differences kept us socially apart.

Why does this make any difference? What is the problem? Well, theoretically, there is no problem. Lots of my immediate friends are religiously different.

Really? Are they?

Then I started to take inventory. While I do have lots of Jewish friends from my past from all different points on the religious spectrum, I was horrified to realize that all the women I hang out with on a regular basis, the women I call, go to coffee with, catch movies with, go biking with, etc. are exactly like me. Exactly.

When did this happen?

Now mind you, I'm not a total loss in this department. I have a wide circle of "extended" friends, like my best friend from childhood who is way out on the fringes of orthodoxy, or my Christian friends from past jobs whom I occasionally go for lunch with, or the Moslem couple that my husband and I go to dinner with twice a year. I have my yeshivish friends back in New York whom I stay with when I go to visit, and I have a whole bevvy on Reform and Recontructionist friends from the class in Tanach that I used to teach.

But I don't hang with these people. No, it seems that these days, I only hang with Webgirl's religious clones. Hair-covering, skirt wearing, don't-eat-out, Torah-uMaddah-right-wing YU types. My posse is completely homogeneous. When, oh when, did this happen? Am I any better than the Yeshivish people in Brooklyn whom I mock, those women whose circles are entirely Yeshivish?

Now, I will say this. I love going out with my friends. They are great women. I can be myself around them. We also have nice clean fun. Did you just laugh when I said "nice clean fun?" But it's true. We don't have uncomfortable conversations. There's no cursing. There's very little drinking (an occasional glass of wine.) There's no talking about things that should remain private. Most of us get each other's cultural references. We have interesting things to share. We agree with each other and when we don't, it's ok. We laugh, we make fun of each other, we cry to each other, we get each other.

Earlier this year, on a visit to NY, I went out with a group of women that I used to be friendly with when I was single, all living on the Upper West Side, all to the far left of me on the Modern Orthodox spectrum. The conversation got around to (I'm not kidding) whose husbands were sexually selfish, and the raunchiest nightgowns we had ever purchased. I didn't participate. I felt like I somehow got transported to a scene from Sex and the City. These were classy, shomeret Shabbat women, and as the conversation progressed, I began to have a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Everyone, including me, was drinking beer, though no one was tipsy. The convo was also sprinkled with expletives, nothing that would curl your hair, just the occasional s-word, etc. I didn't feel uncomfortable, just out of my element. This was not me.

On the same visit to NY, I also went to dinner with three old friends from Boro Park and Flatbush. Our convo centered around: the recent drop in sheitel prices, chessed opportunities that had just opened up, who we could set up with whom, and a wonderful shiur one of the women had heard. While I wasn't jumping out of my skin, this was also not exactly my thing. I wanted to go home.

So maybe it's not the worst thing in the world for me to hang out with people who are just like me. But growing up frum in New York and then leaving had ingrained in me that there is value in building a world of diversity for yourself. Being with people who are not like you challenges you, makes you grow, makes you think, opens you.

And yet, here I am. I'm comfortable with my little posse. And we are going hiking together next week, on a trail that is not too advanced but not too challenging either. We will probably all wear the same style of bandanas to cover our respective hair.

Is that so terrible?