Home > Me > Where did I go to high school you ask?

Where did I go to high school you ask?

It’s the question that, interestingly enough, has a variety of answers – depending on who’s asking.

You see – it’s the I’m a Baal Tshuvah* giveaway and usually happens within the first few minutes of introducing myself.  The answer can instantly reveal a person’s origins.  If you say Bais Yaakov*then obviously you’re Frum From Birth (FFB).  Public school, not FFB.

Everyone handles this question differently.  Some are upfront.  Some hem and haw.  And others just outright lie.   My answer usually depends on my mood and what reaction I want to elicit.

There’s the outright admission… goes like this:

Oh Chavi Cohen… Where are you from?

New York.  Long Island.

Oh really?  What high school did you go to? (no really, the question really does come up right there!)

Public school actually.

And then the fun begins as the frum person looks at me with a dropped jaw and wide open eyes, as if to say, but your snood is so perfectly askew, and your yinglish* has just the perfect lilt, and you just look so… so… heimish*!  How could you have gone to public school and, for that matter, not have grown up frum?

huh.. i guess you just never know do you?  
Then there’s the I’m trying to avoid lying but I’m really not interested in giving you my whole life’s story or I just don’t feel like giving you the impression that I’m any different from you.

Option #2

Long Island? Wow. What high school did you go to?

Oh… A co-ed school. (Brilliant Chavi.  Alluding to a modern-orthodox upbringing and implying just a slight shift to the right.  Totally normal.)

Ohhhh… very nice.  Nice to meet you.

Then there’s option #2b.

Oh… a co-ed school.  You know, all the all-girls schools were a really long commute from my parents’ house. (in an effort to be appear less mod-ox and more mainstream).

You know – because not everyone always needs to know your whole background.  But unfortunately, this question and some other things like for example your parents showing up at a family simcha (event), tatoos, even a second pierced hole in your ears (also guilty!) can give it away.

I guess the real question is – what do we have to hide?  Like some people contest, not only did we make a conscious decision to make a positive change in our lives and to live as truthseekers at the very least, but also we, with our varied skills and backgrounds enhance a world where social norms and limitations run the risk of limiting the very quality of our communities. (This is a very big topic, not to be explored in this post.)

I don’t even have to toot my own horn.  There are plenty of baalei tshuva who are doctors, lawyers, writers, and a million other things that add a vibrancy and diversity to the community.

Shouldn’t we be proud of our contributions?  Of our skills and our journey?  Or our newfound commitment and beautiful families?  Of our ability to live in a world where we never quite fit in?  Of facing each and every challenge of being frum with family that’s not – from eating with them to having them know exactly what type of vort/l’chaim to throw you when you get engaged to and having nowhere (not even in your first year of marriage) to go for yuntif*?

But then, every time I think I’ve convinced myself that I’m properly “integrated” and duly initiated, there comes that question again.  And the look that says it all and wonders how did you ever make it here??  The look that says you’re not 100% like us and that’s something you just can’t erase.  The look that is most of the time, but not all, a combination of mild shock and almost completely concealed disdain. But you look so frum.. they seem to be thinking.

Oh…. they say.  Nice to meet you.

Glossary:

*Baal Tshuvah – someone who became religious later in life, Yinglish – the combination of English and Yiddish, Heimish – Yiddish word used to describe someone who looks frum (among other things not relevant to that particular sentence), Bais Yaakov – the general name of most all girls Orthodox Jewish schools, Yuntif – Yiddish for Yom Tov or holiday, used to describe the holidays like Passover and the Tabernacles and Rosh HaShanah.

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Categories: Me
  1. December 23, 2010 at 12:00 am

    It’s such a good point. Rabbi Chalkowski of Neve (that’s one of my giveaways, I went to a BT seminary!) mentioned something about this in one of his Q&A emails, but in the context of converts (like why isn’t it recommended for converts to make their status public), and I think it can apply to BTs as well. He wrote: “There is a problem that today may people have small minds. When told that someone is a Ger, they tend to be confused how to behave, which makes them awkward and causes great discomfort on all parts.”

    Sometimes I think when someone is more integrated it causes more confusion. Like, it’s supposed to be obvious when someone has come in from the “outside” world, and when a BT blends in very well, and is only “outed” after conversation is initiated, the other person needs to recalibrate once the info is out there.

    Since the questions aren’t going to stop (gotta love that Jewish geography), maybe as girls who didn’t grow up FFB, we could find a new approach for dealing with the awkward deer-in-headlights effect. One approach would be to just put it out there before the question is asked, for example, at a Shabbos table, I’d bring up the fact that I went to a BT seminary, saving my host the awkward moment by beating them to it. Or maybe we could find some cute one-liner about it. I can’t think of any, and this comment has turned into a book. Sorry!

    Great post!

  2. ruchi
    December 23, 2010 at 12:27 am

    Sorry but coming from an ffb standpoint I think you are misreading the reaction. I certainly do not think most ffb’s are harboring “a combination of mild shock and almost completely concealed disdain”. In fact, it feels kind of bad to me to think that’s how “we” come across (excuse the divide there, simply a utilitarian way to make my point), just as I am sure it feels bad to be on the receiving end of that perceived reaction. Imho, and I may be overly kind, I think recalibration, as Rivki mentioned, is one factor, but another is total fascination with the journey. In a good way. Project Inspire et al have done a really good job with the bt pr thing. Note, too, that “Rivki” and “Chavi” are super ffb-compliant monikers that have been chosen for a reason, so if it takes folks a minute to reset the button…I guess it’s understandable. Sorry for book #2. Bottom line is: we’re all sistas so… We’ll be kind to one another. Awareness is always a good thing!

    • December 23, 2010 at 2:26 am

      Oh- so true! I forgot about that! It’s pretty sneaky to go by Rivki. I mean, Rivkah, maybe, but Rivki? Heh heh. It’s my covert agent name (at least that’s how I felt when I started using my Hebrew name. Now I’m just used to it).

      Yay for awareness!

  3. Rachel
    December 23, 2010 at 11:52 am

    While more on the “mod-ox” spectrum, I 100% relate to this (as you know). I hate when people find this out and then feel they need to explain everything – for example, defining certain Jewish terms or experiences when this isn’t necessary – it only separates me more. Although, I have felt that I’ve become more and more comfortable with option #1 over the years as I’ve become more secure in the belief that while people do appear to be shocked, our diverse backgrounds do really enhance the frum world. I also think having maried somone from the frum world makes me feel more a part of it and less “different”.

  4. January 10, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    I’m totally integrated, and my husband is FFB. What makes it hard for me is that I’m not completely BT nor FFB either. I went to public school and my parents were sabbath observant, not so far from Orthodox but definitely not there either. Which means people make all kinds of incorrect assumptions about me, all the time, in one direction or the other. Sigh.

  5. January 10, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    First of all, unless an FFB grew up in certain sheltered neighbourhoods or had the most hashkafah-filled upbringing (read: so rare it probably doesn’t happen), there’s still some sort of process that we each go through. There’s usually a gap between what’s taught at Bais Yaakov and how to be an inspired Jewish woman. Personally, I grew up frum, did the Bais Yaakov thing, and I still ended up at Neve (hi, Rivki!), a BT seminary. While in Bais Yaakov, I had “a background” – we learned from the textual stuff, studied the laws, learned Hebrew – it was mostly an emphasis on how to live a Jewish life, not on how to BE Jewish internally. That takes real learning, real motivation and inspiration, from real people, not books and tests. (A few of my friends who went a similar route as I did called ourselves FFB-BTs.)

    Second of all, I agree with Ruchi. In today’s world, where the BT movement is becoming huge, there’s a tremendous respect from the FFB community (or should be, if there isn’t) on the process that people go through. When I was dating, I really wanted to make it a requirement that I only date a BT (I was told I shouldn’t, but I can make it a preference). A Baal Teshuva is someone who recognises truth, and actively seeks to live that way. As an FFB, I struggle with that all the time, and I wanted to be around someone who could inspire me constantly. When I meet someone who comes from a completely or partially secular background, it’s amazing to me that they completely uprooted their lives to live according to what is True, and maybe that causes some of the awkwardness. BTs today are role models to FFBs everywhere.

    Kudos to all of you.

  6. January 10, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    I stumbled across your blog from http://www.cookingmanager.com, and also have had many similar experiences. I converted and have a loooong involved story about how I started on the path towards Judaism. To me, it seems that the sensitivity lies within us, not the other way around. Almost every person I have told about my story of becoming Jewish and religious has done so with a genuine curiosity and most are pleasantly surprised when they find out I grew up on the “other side of town” (Literally the West side of Cleveland, for all you NE Ohio readers!). It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t need to make up a story because people really just want to make connections. That whole where did you go to school song and dance, in my opinion, is a ready made way for Jews to connect- our favorite past time. I’m still working on the self-acceptance part but lucky for us it’s a lifelong pursuit. Love your writing, by the way!

  7. February 20, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    I have also felt uncomfortable with that question. Now, not so much. I am who I am and it is what it is and it is up to the questioner to deal with my answer. But, I agree that no one wants to feel “outed” by someone they just met. I agree with Penina that everyone goes through a spiritual journey, which is a personal thing and not something you necessarily want to share upon first meeting someone.

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