This weekend, I attended a Zionist youth leadership conference in Miami. (Cue jokes.) The conference was held in an all-Jewish hotel on the beach, complete with kosher dining services, two Shabbat elevators (that stop on all the floors so on Shabbat religious Jews don’t have to use electricity by pushing buttons), an Israeli security team, and hoards old ladies playing bridge in the lobby. The participants of the conference were mostly on the secular-ish side of the Jewish spectrum that went to schools similar to Amherst. Northeastern, Brandeis, and UCSD were reppin’ hard, if you were wondering.
On Saturday afternoon I was heading back down to the General Assembly room from my mid-afternoon free time nap for prayer time. The elevator was a bit crowded, but there was certainly room for me. I stood towards the back, in front of a middle-aged woman in a long black skirt, a sign of religious orthodoxy, and a boy my age who I recognized from the conference (you can call him David Schwartz, Max Cohen, or Ben Goldberg, your choice). The elevator doors opened again on the floor below and a friend of mine attempted to squeeze in. In an effort to make room for her, I stepped backwards.
And this is where it all went wrong.
I had trodden, albeit it lightly, on the religious woman’s toes. Instinctively, David/Max/Ben had put his hand on my arm to let me know that I should step forward again. It was okay to crowd and squeeze in when it was just us kids in a space, but we had to be respectful of other people in the hotel. I tried to step forward in response, but I was promptly grabbed by another set of hands. The religious woman had grabbed hold of my arm, right next to David’s hand and was yelling at him. A moment of confusion ensued, made more complicated by the fact that I was in no position, in the now packed elevator, to turn around and actually see who was grabbing at me and why. It soon became clear to David that the woman wanted him to stop touching me. Flushing a deep crimson, he took his hand off of me and raised both hands, palms up, as if he had been caught stealing.
“That’s disrespectful!” the religious woman lectured him, “You should apologize! One does not touch a woman like that.”
Thankfully, the elevator reached G.A. at this point and David and I filed out. “Sorry, didn’t mean to cause that… um…” I stuttered.
“No, it’s, uh, it’s all cool. Um… didn’t mean to, uh, make you feel uncomfortable.”
We shook hands and proceeded to ignore each other for the rest of the conference.
For the record, I wasn’t at all taken aback by David grabbing me. We both understood that he was merely trying to warn me not to step on the woman’s foot. I have had my ass slapped and my breasts grazed by complete strangers in New York subway cars on my way to internships/High School. Not to mention attempting to enjoy myself in the Amherst socials.
In the religious Jewish community though (as is true of many religious communities), men and women who are unmarried do not touch, do not shake hands at business meetings, much less hug, kiss, or have premarital sex. This is not even something that is considered in our community. We know here at Amherst that somewhere out there someone is saving IT, but I, for one, have never met him/her. This weekend I met beautiful, well-dressed and articulate girls who had literally never been in a room alone with a boy who wasn’t a member of their family. These were girls who were choosing not to ever have their first kiss until they had finished grad school and were ready to get married.
This may sound out of character, but there’s something in that (the lifestyle, not, in this case, the Orthodox girls), which I find very attractive. I’m not talking so much about premarital sex, either, but just the real, conscious analysis of public touch. The downsides to this kind of societal norm are obvious: it’s psychologically proven to be unhealthy to go without skin-to-skin contact ( haptic communication ) of any kind, it’s disgustingly heteronormative, and it allows for the subjugation of women in society. I’ve seen the terrible effects of this kind of thinking about gender relations at play in Israel when an 8-year-old girl was spit on for dressing immodestly. I understand why, and I am grateful that, I do not live in a culture where I wasn’t allowed to touch men.
On the other hand, in that moment, there was something very reassuring about knowing that a total stranger was looking out for sexual respect and willing to call someone out who she saw as violating me. I am, personally, incredibly sensitive to touch. When I am angry or sad, being physically close to people makes me feel claustrophic and frustrated. Also, I sometimes feel like touch can be condescending, even subtly, touch can be used to display emotional/physical power over another person. My secular society doesn’t seem to be accepting of that.
In our world, when someone is crying, your impulse is to give them a hug or pat them on the back. I wish people thought a little bit more about those gestures. What is your relationship with me/rando person crying in this scenario? When is it, and when ISNT it appropriate to touch someone? And why DON’T we think about this more?
TBW on the Zionist conference itself. Happy first day of classes, she-bomb readers!