Wearing My BT Badge with Pride

This is a response to the post, Can and Should BTs become Virtually Indistinguishable? I wish I could have seen the entirety of the letter for the Kiruv organization that was quoted. My immediate gut reaction was insult. In a frum community, if all members are following halacha and more or less the same customs, what is the issue with being a little different?

It reminds me of some conversations that I’ve had with the ultra-Orthodox community I studied with as I began to take on mitzvot. I asked why the men would all wear black suits. Where was the individuality? I was told that once you’re in the community and get to know people, you notice little accessories or personality traits that makes each person individual.

There is a lot to be said about conformity and community, but personally, I wear my BT badge like I do my American accent that won’t go away when I speak Hebrew — with pride. I don’t need to flash it around, but I don’t stuff it away either.

Just a few days ago I was at an ultra-Orthodox wedding. Putting on a black headscarf to accompany my black dress and black tights, I certainly looked like I belonged, but it felt a bit like a Purim costume. I wondered if others could see through the veneer. And then, once the party started, oh the dancing. I can’t ever get those circle dance steps right. Could anyone tell I was out of sync? Part of me hoped so. And then, back at the table, I was asked about a family I might know from my hometown. When I didn’t, she asked “You’re not chozeret l’tshuvah, are you?” and I felt a little embarrassed to say “Yes.” Given my outfit, would she know that was not my choice? Why did that matter?

The following day I put on a different outfit for running errands in town – a tunic shirt, cotton skirt, and headscarf, all in bright blues and purples. To carry some of my belongings I had an Israeli army צה’ל bag. I looked the part of a typical daati leumi woman. I felt stares. “Do they know I’m a poser American who would be too scared to actually live in a settlement?”

While I wear a head covering and skirts in part because I want to be identified as religious, I struggle with the idea of being like the man in the suit.

While trying to find a place among the choices of religious communities in Israel, I still hold on dearly to my secular past. I’ll hum zemirot to myself while shopping for Shabbat, but all a friend or my husband has to do is to say a word or a phrase that will send me off into a pop or rap song with the same verse. And when I bust a rhyme, I hope people overhear me.

I agree with the e-mail that “it is possible and almost always advisable to maintain many relationships from the past, especially familial ones.” It is my belief that Jews are not to sequester themselves away from the outside world, but rather to uplift it, and to be a “light upon the nations”. BT’s can be a strong chain in the link between the two worlds. I would argue that, within reason, it’s okay and even advisable to maintain the most precious elements of our lifelong relationships, hobbies, and habits, for they were placed in our lives for a reason, and they too are a badge that reminds us we made a choice.

Visit Ilene’s blog. here.

27 comments on “Wearing My BT Badge with Pride

  1. I had a very good email exchange with the author and David F’s reading was correct.

  2. David, you’ve convinced me that yours is a reasonable reading. Perhaps I was using other information besides the article itself to arrive at my conclusion that the author thinks it’s a very good idea to try to become virtually indistinguishable.

    Although the opinion of this particular author is of interest, since he puts out a BT directed newsletter, I think the issue itself is more important and is very nuanced. Every time I read an article with comments on the subject, such as Ilenes, I get a clearer picture of the issue.

    G-d willing, I’ll write up my understanding and hope that the Beyond BT community will critique my article in the quest for even more clarity.

  3. Mark,

    The way I understood it is that there is a notion among some BT’s that in order to integrate into the FFB community one must “go all the way” and that includes saying goodbye to secular relatives and relationships.
    The author wrote that EVEN if one wishes to integrate fully, this need not come at the expense of those relationships. These are vitally important relationships and they must be preserved even if it’s difficult to do so. Regardless of how badly one wishes to integrate and erase his past, it should never come at the expense of discarding his former relationships.
    Understood this way, it’s evident that he wasn’t promoting full integration or even discussing it. The entire thrust of the discussion revolved around else.
    It would be like me saying that it’s very important to drive with two hands on the wheel and even someone who is a very fast driver and very confident behind the wheel should still make sure to keep both hands on the wheel.
    Nowhere in that sentence am I saying that I think it’s advisable to drive at high speeds.

  4. Judy, I think there’s a big difference between not obviously sticking out and being “virtually indistinguishable”.

    To tie this into Sefirah, according to some, the concept of being virtually indistinguishable was also the problem of the students of Rabbi Akiva.

    So it’s an old problem that we need to correct and not propagate.

    Virtually indistinguishable is a very poor choice of words at best and is extremely bad advice if taken at its face value.

  5. To Mark Frankel #21: I think the author meant it in a good sense, that we BT’s and Geirim fit in well enough so that we don’t stick out of the bunch so obviously like a kipa sruga in a crowd of black Borsalinos, or a cotton bandanna in a sea of custom sheitels. Yes, we can still maintain our individuality without losing our hard-won feelings of finally being accepted as a vital part of the wider frum community.

  6. I don’t have a problem with trying to achieve a very high level of integration and I personally think that’s a worthwhile goal. And I agree it’s not a must but a good idea.

    I do have a problem with “ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from FFB’s”.

    David, what do you think the author meant by including this?

  7. I’m sorry Mark but that’s pure projection on your part. The way I understood it is that he was saying that even if one desires full integration, that’s still not an excuse to ditch the family. I don’t know why you chose to extrapolate from there that he considers this an ideal especially when he was careful to write, “with proper guidance a Baal Teshuvah can [not must]…achieve a very high level of integration into the frum community,” It appears that he does not think it’s a must at all.
    I’m not sure this matters since we’re both talking about something that the others on this blog have not seen nor does it matter. We both agree that it is not the ideal path. I just don’t think you have proof of how the author himself thinks on the subject.

  8. David, I’ve read the article over a few times and although the author is addressing the issue that we should try to maintain strong family ties, it is also clear that “achieving a very high level of integration into the frum community, ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from FFB’s even in ultra-Charedi settings” is also desirable in the author’s view. If he didn’t deem it desirable, why would he even mention “ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from FFB’s”, since it was not a part of the question?

    I agree that integration is very important, but I question whether that takes the form of becoming virtually indistinguishable from FFBs.

  9. Mark,

    I can’t speak for the author but I can speak for the context of the article which I just reviewed to ensure that my recollection of it is not flawed.
    The author was asked by a BT whether he believes that maintaining strong family relations is important in light of the fact that many BT’s believe that to properly integrate into the frum community one must cut off ties. To that he responded that EVEN if one wishes to fully integrate, that’s not an excuse for not maintaining strong ties.
    I wish I could quote the entire article here but I’ll respect the wishes of the org. not to. You were the one who posted it so I think you can go back and see if I misunderstood it or if it’s being quoted out of context.

  10. Here’s the quote from the original Beyond BT post:

    I am of the belief that with proper guidance a Baal Teshuvah can [not must], by proceeding at a very moderate pace, achieve a very high level of integration into the frum community, ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from FFB’s even in ultra-Charedi settings. This level of integration requires one to largely dispose of a great deal of his former lifestyle and even many relationships. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that even for one who does wish to attain this level of integration, it is possible and almost always advisable to maintain many relationships from the past, especially familial ones. This is certainly not an easy feat and requires dedication and much finesse, but it is often worthwhile, as I will explain.

    It’s very clear from this paragraph, without the rest of the letter, that the author is saying:
    “it is possible and almost always advisable to maintain many relationships from the past, especially familial ones”.

    However the author is also saying
    “I am of the belief that with proper guidance a Baal Teshuvah can [not must], by proceeding at a very moderate pace, achieve a very high level of integration into the frum community, ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from FFB’s even in ultra-Charedi settings.”

    I think it’s quite clear that the author holds that becoming virtually indistinguishable from FFB’s is something that BTs should aspire to.

  11. Ilene,

    I too wondered what the original email might have said and if it suggested that full integration was a good idea. Instead of getting offended, however, I asked around until I got a hold of the email and I realized that this was not their point at all. They were not suggesting that this is mandatory or even necessary. The entire point of that article was to suggest that even if one seeks to integrate fully, they still should make every effort to maintain strong family ties.
    Read in context the article was speaking about something else entirely and echoed a sentiment that I think everyone here would agree with.
    I guess sometimes it’s easier to just be offended than to give someone the benefit of the doubt or to find out what was actually said.

  12. Maybe the old articles, aged like fine wine, are all we need. It sure seems as if the new ones cover the same ground but not as well.

  13. The issue of how to dress, a perennial favorite here and topic of my own first-ever post on Beyond BT, is certainly a personal one. Like everything else that is not a strict matter of halacha, it is a choice we make and that choice has implications.

    If we do indeed wear our BT Badges with pride, then the social effects of non-conformity will not only fail to hurt us, but are defined as a benefit (i.e., a feeling of pride). I remember feeling this way in my early years as well.

    Later on I came to feel that I wanted different kinds of benefit — the sort that come along with not sticking out from the rest. For what it’s worth, I believe that others close to me are pleased that I made that decision, eventually. To be less coy, most kids don’t want their parents to stick out.

    It is not a great idea to judge a book by its cover, something I considered in this post a while ago. We are better of for not doing it beyond the extent to which it is actually justified; sometimes, as I argued in these two pieces and elsewhere over time around here, it is justified. But we do know that people do judge others by how they choose to present themselves in a given social context. And we also know that “not to choose” is also a choice!

  14. Bob Miller —

    My Rav is the rav of my shul and lives down the street from me (and around a corner).

  15. Shmuel,

    Does your Rav live in or near the community where you live? If not, is he familiar with it?

  16. One thing I try to do is to base my practices on what I have learned in gemara/rishonim/shulchan aruch and psak I get from my rav, and NOT on what everyone else is doing. By doing this (always in consultation with my rav) I am creating a mesora that comes to me from my teachers and not from those who happen to live in my neighborhood or daven at the same shul as me, etc., and which I can pass on to my children.

    This approach has a side benefit of maintaining my individuality –if I do a certain practice, it is because of what I learned or what my rav instructed me to do, and I never worry about being the same as others for the sake of being the same or differentiating myself for the sake of differentiating myself.

    After all, our lives are supposed to be about avodat hashem through living according to Torah, not about being conformists or noncomformists for its own sake.

    I recognize of course that different approaches may work for others.

  17. My first black hat was a bucket, two sizes too big (my Hebrew was rusty then, so I just nodded to sales-people all the time.) I didn’t want a hat, but I was in a place where everyone wore one, and I figured it kept the dust out of my hair. But I didn’t see it as taking away from my individuality, so what’s the big deal? I liked feeling like I fit in. It took me a while to get used to it, but I don’t regret it, like I do changing over to my Hebrew name too fast.

  18. Laura,

    You reminded me of a girl I once knew in my first year at an Israeli BT seminary: within one week at the seminary, literally, she was saying “boruch Hashem” and started acting real “spiritual,” as if she were suffused with chessed all these years. It made everyone worry about her. In fact she really was quite fragile and possibly unbalanced. I vowed from that point that I wouldn’t answer “Boruch Hashem” for years, until I really meant it! And it did take a few years!

  19. What a great topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

    I think the big difference is in the self-esteem of the individual. If one is comfortable with who they are on the inside then whether they choose to change their looks is an honest and true decision based on internal motives. Also, these people can better balance ‘the new frum world’ and that of the ‘old’, including friends, family, music, etc. If they choose not to integrate they are also more comfortable with the decision.

    Although going through the baalei teshuva process, especially at the start, is de-stabilising to some extent, the people who started off strong are better equipped to handle these new challenges and ups and downs.

    What we need to do is look out for fellow BTs who aren’t that strong internally to ensure they take it really slow, and don’t just conform for the sake of conforming.

  20. Actually, Ben, I have a question that precedes Bob’s in concept. Are you offended by the conformity in dress found in certain orthodox communities in general, or only with regard to BT’s?

  21. Ben David,

    Compared with other forms of conformity, is conformity of dress especially bothersome to you?

    How would you define superficial externals? Why would freedom from superficial externals be important to you if they really don’t get to the heart of living, anyway?

  22. Bravo.
    Your post embodies the difference between the unhealthy, immature, externalized playing-dress-up BT route, and the more authentic and mature route of real teshuva.

    Unfortunately the frum world itself has become oppressively focused on superficial externals.

    I also disagree with Belle – the conformity in matters of personal taste that is enforced in the “black hat” frum world is much more stifling and restrictive than in the other worlds we’ve lived in, and still live/work in.

  23. What I meant above by “individual dress preferences” was, more accurately “an individual’s dress preferences that would be modest as required by halacha but different from the local community’s uniform”.

  24. IMHO, the main thing is to be “comfortable in your own skin.” At a certain point in your life you stop worrying about what other people might be thinking, or saying, about you. As long as Gd is happy with what you are doing (in other words, are you in conformance with the Shulchan Aruch), the rest doesn’t really matter.

  25. If a BT has some especially good insight derived from his/her own experience or perception, the way to express that is through especially good actions related to this insight. The mode of dress seems irrelevant to this. Why should individual dress preferences be considered so important?

  26. I identified with Ilene’s struggle against the conformity prevalent in the frum world. I thought about this a lot while becoming frum and during my first years living in the frum community.

    What I concluded finally is that very few people really seek to stand out of the crowd, including us! Look at an American college campus – there is a uniform there as well – blue jeans, T shirts, whatever is in style at Banana, etc. – even NYC “non-conformists” do non-conformity the same way! (ie why is spikey hair all of a sudden popular at the same time among a certain group of “non-conformists”?)

    The problem we really face is that we are used to conforming with a different crowd, the American, secular crowd, not the Israeli frum, or Brooklyn frum, crowd. The difficult transition, feeling like we are giving up our identity in order to conform, has less to do with the concept of conformity than with the struggle of who we are and who we want to identify with. When that internal struggle is resolved, the issue of the clothing diminishes.

    And although it may seem that the frum communities are into conformity, the truth is that the difference is in degree not in kind. I remember one girl I was friends with in college (way before I became frum) who decided she only wanted to wear skirts (not a Jewish girl). She got blasted socially because of it. So I really don’t agree that American/secularist society is really so tolerant and into non-conformity. It is tolerant only of what they dictate is acceptable, which might be a wider umbrella than your typical Israeli chareidi community, but is limited nonetheless.

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