I find myself in an odd predicament now that I live in Israel.
To touch or not to touch.
I like to think I’m a fairly affectionate person; though some would argue I’m a cold, aloof, you-know-what that starts with a B and ends in an itch. Nevertheless, I enjoy the freedom of being able to give someone an enthusiastic “nice-to-meet-you” handshake; a compassionate stroke on the back should a friend feel sad; or a warm hug to express my excitement over his recent achievement.
I’m an equal opportunity touchy feeler. Meaning: In the communities in which I’ve lived up until now, doling out such loving kindness to both men and women has always been socially acceptable and appropriate.
Certainly, I knew there were cultures in which touching a married man in any way would have been inappropriate, but I hardly came into contact with anyone in such a culture, including observant Jewish men.
In New Jersey, where I spent most of my adult life, the Jews I frequently interacted with were a range of Conservative to Reform to non-practicing. Certainly, I might see or even talk to a Modern Orthodox Jew, for instance, but the closest I came to social interaction with a man who considered himself observant enough to avoid contact with a woman other than his wife happened to be a client of mine.
One day, the client came to an event I organized and I was so pleasantly surprised to see him there that I gave him a big appreciative hug. Mid-hug, I realized my error and was so mortified I frantically looked around for a hole to crawl into. No such luck. It was too late to take the hug back and there was nowhere to hide. I smiled what I hope was an apologetic smile, and ran away.
There is no place to run here in Israel, where you encounter Jews of every shape, size, color, and denomination. At the bank, the post office, the grocery store. Of course, there is little reason for me to embrace my local postal worker (except for when he’s delivering a care package from the United States), but there are certain occasions in which I’ve been forced to consider how I might greet the man in front of me.
For instance, last week I was called in for a job interview. In advance of my meeting, I was asked by a Nefesh B’Nefesh coordinator if I wanted some quick tips about interviewing in Israel. At first, I felt a bit insulted. After all, I am a consummate professional with more than 15 years in the workforce. I’ve been on numerous successful interviews. What do I really need to know about interviewing in Israel?
Well…turns out I was wrong. “What are you going to do about shaking hands?” the coordinator asked me. “Um, shake with confidence, but not painfully hard?” I responded. “No,” she said. “If the person in front of you is a woman, go ahead and shake. However, if the person you are meeting with is a man, check to see if he’s wearing a kippah. If he is, let him extend his hand first to see if he is comfortable shaking yours.”
What? Since I was a young woman heading out for internship interviews in Washington, D.C., I was taught by my father that a woman should have a firm, confident handshake, especially when meeting a gentleman. What accompanies “it’s a pleasure to meet you” if not a handshake? (In the end, the individual who interviewed me was a woman.)
Back at home, on pluralistic Hannaton, I also need to tread carefully. Earlier this week, our neighbor gave birth. Her husband, who wears a kippah and whom I know to be from an observant background, came by to pick up his son who we were watching while his mother was in the hospital.
“So,” I asked him. “Is everything is ok?”
“Yes,” he responded. “We have a new baby girl.”
“Hooray! Mazal tov,” I shouted as I jumped up and down, leaning towards him for the hug. Mere seconds before touching him, I caught myself and asked. “Is it okay if I hug you?”
“Of course!” he responded, as if to say, “You silly American olah chadasha.” I was proud of myself for thinking quickly enough to ask permission before the embrace, instead of regretting it and obsessing about it with remorse and humiliation afterwards.
Pluralism is a hot button topic in Israel, I’m finding – The idea that religious and secular Jews can and should live in harmony together. It’s a dialogue we hardly ever have in the States. We’re too busy sticking together against the anti-Semites to worry much about embracing or rejecting our own intrafaith diversity.
The conversations on pluralism and acceptance are ones in which I’m interested in partaking. First, however, I need to figure out an authentic, yet appropriate way for a friendly Jewish girl to say, “Hello.”
Jen Maidenberg is is a writer, editor, activist and former assistant editor at the Arizona Jewish Post. Visit her website at http://jenmaidenberg.com/.