Saturday, January 07, 2006

the year in review

alright, folks. in the fashion of all good presidential hopefuls (if you don't know what i'm talking about, snag the nearest college newsletter and you'll understand), i have decided to take a few moments to reflect on the past semester. that's right. two more finals and i am home at last. back to the winterland. and these days, as i am dragging myself off of my mattress on the floor and brushing my teeth in my neighbor's kitchen, i find myself wondering how i'll respond to the inevitable question:

was it worth it?

i went to college at 16. i left an environment where i was fairly stable, pretty secure, and genuinely happy. everybody in my hometown was my friend, and everybody in my family was very close to me. guys crossed the street to avoid me, and digital watches still seemed like a pretty neat idea (qed).

i missed senior year. yearbook and all the seminary applications.

and i feel about fifteen years older than i felt when i came here with my mother at the end of august, and she took notes for me on a little pad of paper.

but i think that when my friends ask me: was it worth it? i will have to say yes. i will have to yes because i now know a lot of things.

i present them to you, in list form.

Things That I Learned Over Fall Semester

1. it's a lot harder to be frum in new york than it is in milwaukee.

what? you are thinking. but new york has pizza, shabbos doors, a mechitza on the monsey bus! (oh, the things that bus does). in new york you never have to bake a day in your life. there's always a minyan going on someplace. there's always--

in new york there's always everything. there's a halachically-sanctioned point of view for every type of sketchiness you can think of. there's a hechsher on stuff that is assur d'oreisa. you want to make out with people? there's a couple guys hanging around the lobby who aren't too discriminating. you want to get falling down drunk? there's a bar every two blocks. there's hookah in the village and drugs pretty much everywhere uptown. that's to be expected in a city this big.

but that's not what gets you, really. anybody can turn down a shady chainsmoker with a five o'clock shadow and a leather jacket. the difficult part is when they look and act exactly like you.

and it's amazing, because they do.

they daven three times a day, they wear all the right hems and necklines, they know the intricacies of hilchas shabbos and they can quote chazal. and on saturday night, they are off to the hookah bar. it is the most normal thing in the world.

and you can object, and they'll look at you like you're crazy. what's the big deal? it's not like they're doing drugs or anything. it's just hookah! and drinking? everybody in the jewish community drinks! sheesh! what do you call purim, for crying out loud? and all the old russian guys in the shteeble who give you vodka?

i feel like i'm being unfair. there are plenty of people here who don't drink, probably the majority. but that isn't the point. the point is that there are plenty who do, and sometimes, they are not who you expect them to be.

and it's so hard, when you're standing there, blushing furiously, trying to explain to them exactly why it is wrong. where in the Torah does it say you can't do hookah? where in the Torah does it say you can't drink? no, of course it doesn't. so what's your problem, ms. high-and-mighty? why are you so prissy?

and the answer is that where you come from, where your parents brought you up and all your friends gave you an idea of what normal was, nobody thought of drinking. the concept was contrary to everything you learned in school and every value your community imparted in you. it seemed so stupid and pointless and crude, and for all the areas where 'being a bas yisroel' seemed like hard work, that one was just common sense. no, 'bas yisroel's don't get smashed after school. if you'd suggested it to your class, they would have laughed.

but not every class was like your class, not every community was like your community. and in new york, nothing says you can't be frum and party college style. so long as you got your kipa on, man.

then there are the less serious, often debated, and occasionally wacky topics in halacha. a personal favorite is kol isha. you may have heard of it. the halacha's been interpreted many, many ways, but in its most basic form, it boils down to this: a girl can't sing in front of guys. why? because her singing might bring them to have unclean thoughts, and the person who causes a sin is held responsible for it.

now THERE'S a fun definition for you. 'but your voice doesn't turn me on! honestly it doesn't!' 'well then how come you're allowed to TALK to me? huh? HUH? how come my SISTER'S allowed to talk to me?' and of course, the ever-popular My Rabbi Holds That Microphones Are OK.

no, seriously. i am not trying to insult the reform, the conservative et al. this is one place in which other forms of judiasm inherently differ, and i am too inexperienced and unknowledgable to tackle a heady religious debate. but lately i've been practicing with an all girl band, and kol isha is not just some quaint notion to me. it surprises me how many people here are educated enough to know better who shrug it off. it's inconvenient; it gets in the way of too much. don't you want our band to be serious? how can our band get anywhere if we can't play for guys? we can't get any gigs that way. ok, so you don't have to sing. but if we don't care, what's to stop us from singing? it's their sin anyway! if they get turned on by us singing, that's their problem! they're creeps! kol isha has been seriously exaggerated. the rabayim didn't mean it that way. it's not d'oreisa. recordings are ok. microphones are ok. live performances are ok. you don't even know why you're doing it. if you knew the real halachos behind all of the beis yaakov hype you would see that there's really no issur.

no, maybe i don't understand the halachic basis for why i do it. but one thing i have learned from college is that i am doing it. it's hard, i'm afraid that it may cost me a few friends, and i don't know what i'll do when the band actually finds a co-ed gig they want to play. will i play guitar and not sing and still think i'm fine? will i opt out for that gig? will i opt out entirely? should i do it now, and save myself the trouble? but they're practicing a song that i wrote!

the truth is, i don't know. but if i cede one battle to convenience, there goes the neighborhood.

i guess the last topic i'll take up in the whole fight-for-frumkeit war is shomer negiah. or maybe not even that specific. guys in general.

i have to admit that when i was in high school, as you can actually see if you look at some of my older posts, guys were not a blip on my radar. i did not think it possible to be 'friends' with guys, and the few girls i knew who WERE friends with them seemed to be doing it more as a form of rebellion or coolness than anything else. whatever, it held no appeal for me. the guys in my community were too frum to walk on the same side of the street on me or the opposite extreme, and i thought all guys were like that. you can imagine how alarmed i was when teachers talked to us about marriage. i just figured i'd be one of those spinsters who writes children's books and neatly avoid the whole unhappy scene.

no one ever talked to us about shomer negiah. i guess they thought we would have laughed if they'd told us not to touch boys we couldn't have found if we wanted to, anyway.

and i was a little bit naive about the whole stern/yu scene. yeah, i didn't really comprehend that they were part of the same school. my mother warned me about guys, but i figured she just meant that there were so many jews in new york i was bound to run into a few of them somewhere. or that there would be girls in stern dating and i might meet their boyfriends. like i said, i was a lot younger than i thought.

well, i've since discovered that while there are guys here who won't walk on the same side of the street as you, there are plenty more who will, and they aren't all sleazebags. some of them are really pretty decent. they put on funny accents, makes faces with their food, and ride the chessed bus. they admire cool buildings and they work hard to make shabbos special. they're not sure about a lot of things, they get anxious about their finals. in short, they are just normal people, and some of them make good friends. a lot of you are probably surprised that i make this statement so cautiously, but this is an area where every line is blurred to me. i know i could not go back and tell my whole high school class that i have friends who are guys. does that make it wrong? i'm not sure.

this should be a number - what i've learned about guys - but to heck with it.

on the one hand, i've learned how to talk to them as though they are normal people and not the boogey man. you know, say what you will for tzneous, but everybody's gotta grow up sometime, and the real world really does not lend itself to mumbling and panic attacks and crossing streets every time you have to deal with guys. yes, you have to deal with guys. even jewish ones. eventually - get this - you will probably have to date one. can you imagine? yes. imagine going on a nice little shidduch and sitting down across the table from a type of human being with whom you have never had any type of interaction before and trying to make conversation. i'm sure people have done it before, but i don't envy them. this semester's taught me, for the most part, how to talk to guys as if they are members of the same species. i think they deserve that much.

it's also taught me about different types of guys. there are some stinkbombs who seem perfectly innocent until you've known them for a few weeks, but at least i can now recognize the blatantly obnoxious right off the bat. i used to be so ashamed of myself when i was in high school; i wasn't as thin or as pretty as the other girls, i wasn't as funny or as smart as them, i wasn't as considerate or interesting. i thought no guy would ever want somebody like me. if any had told me i was pretty, i would have been so astonished and grateful that they considered me worth sweet-talking i wouldn't have cared who they were. i see that happening to a lot of girls here, and it always makes me shiver. it could so easily have been me.

but by the time i started college i wasn't quite that pathetic. my parents and my friends all let me know in little ways that i meant a lot to them, and they were the people that were worth meaning a lot to, and they were there for me whether i was pretty or not, and i knew it. so if i was good enough for them, as i said, whether or not guys noticed me didn't matter. hey, i did fine without them my entire life, and as i started to meet people here, i began to realize that it was their job to impress me, not the other way around. the guys i am friends with here are friends with me because we've got the same sense of humor and we all want to grow into decent jews. these are the same reasons i am friends with girls. i value their support, their company, and the occasional advice.

i won't deny, though, that it can sometimes be very strange being friends with guys. it is not like being friends with girls. with girls you're usually safe. with guys...some days you don't know where you stand. i have been guilty of reading too much into certain things and too little into others. the rules are vague. i would say that especially with the orthodox crowd, this is a problem that should be addressed, but now that i think about it i realize how stupid that sounds. it's really just the whole mars vs. venus thing, de-holly-wood-ized and boiled down to real life.

i could go on and on and on about this. and have. to pretty much anyone who will listen ( mom, my neighbor. a wide and varied crowd, to be sure). i really want to get into the alarming state of misinformation re shomer negiah-- a lot of religious people i've met here seem to think it's more of an old fashioned chumra, or like cholov yisroel, than a halacha. there's them's that do and them's that don't. i highly advise steering clear of the them's that don't, especially guys (and girls) that know better. but since i honestly learned more at college than guys, let's...let's progress, shall we? let's cover some new material before winter break!

nah. i wonder how many of you have stuck around this long. i'll try and be short for the rest of them.

i've learned that i can survive away from my family. i don't even envy the queenicans and brooklyners who can go home every weekend or every night. you know why? all my life, i've always been a stay-at-home. my best friends could invite me out for shabbos and i wouldn't go. until this year, i've been hesitant to approach anything different or new or uncomfortable. as long as i had the option of chickening out and sticking with what i knew, i'd have never staid for shabbos here. in fact, i probably wouldn't have gone to a lot of the activities, either.

and i would have been missing out. i wouldn't have met a lot of my friends. i wouldn't have been a part of those crazy, rambling three-am games of charades. i would never have learned how to enjoy what life throws at me and just see where it takes me. even a little bit.

that's a big part of college. that's really why i think it is all it's cracked up to be.

it confronts you with situations you couldn't make up in a bad dream. it forces you to interact on a daily basis with more people than your home state's population. it asks you a lot of questions: who you are, what makes you who you are, who you want to be and what's going to get you there.

who are your friends and how do you know.

what's really important and what's just a sad misconception.

i think that i have learned a lot from the past few months. maybe more about people and life than all my past sixteen years combined. (which reminds me, i wanted to talk about the age, maybe tuesday). i think every term will be like this: a lifetime's worth of lessons packed into a few measly months.

and i think that's good, too.

in conclusion, as i wrap up my prestigious and official Year in Review, i am glad that i decided to go off to college when i did. i am glad to know what i now know. in light of thursday's final, perhaps more of it should have pertained to archeology, but all in all i feel the trade-off was worth it.

oh, and one last nugget of information, which i fear will strike a heavy blow to smirky yeshiva-elementary kids everywhere: pittsburgh also says 'orange' instead of 'ahhh-range.'

Sunday, January 01, 2006

in your face, abba

guess who has been nominated for not one, but TWO blog awards? that's right...'best jewish humor' AND 'best student life'! without even trying! or even technically knowing someone was handing out awards!