Religion & Beliefs

Shomer Negiah in the City

It was the summer I left San Francisco. I’d gotten a book deal, gotten hardcore about this whole Orthodox thing, and hitched a ride with my best friend’s ex-girlfriend and her dog to New York City. Suddenly I lived in … Read More

By / January 11, 2008

It was the summer I left San Francisco. I’d gotten a book deal, gotten hardcore about this whole Orthodox thing, and hitched a ride with my best friend’s ex-girlfriend and her dog to New York City. Suddenly I lived in a city of gorgeous, untouchable Orthodox girls who knew more about Judaism than I even suspected there was to know, who never looked me in the eye, who lived in lavish penthouse apartments in neighborhoods where I couldn’t even afford to eat.

Over the course of the summer, I followed Yirmi and Benji, my Jewish socialite friends, to one-dollar drink nights and concerts where they seemed to know everyone and everyone seemed to be Orthodox. Every time I turned around, I caught sight of a guy in a yarmulke. It was like the dream in Being John Malkovitch where everyone has John Malkovitch’s face, even the grandmothers and the hot girls in tight dresses. In my case, though, it wasn’t the grandmothers and the girls, but jocks and investment bankers in casual Friday khakis. It was half brilliant fantasy—I’m not the only one!—and half nightmare, because even if we had Orthodox Judaism in common, that didn’t necessarily mean they were cool people, or even that they had anything interesting to say. In fact, most of them liked to talk about their day jobs. Wasn’t this what I moved to San Francisco to get away from?

But I needed to go to these lame parties with lame buffets and even lamer MC’s. I needed to give up the too-cool game, the too-hip game, the I-don’t-need-a-salary-and-health-care-cause-I’m-a-professional-poet game. I needed to do these things because I’d decided that I was Ready To Date.

Admitting to yourself that you are Ready To Date is a pretty big deal among Orthodox Jews because dating is a short step away from getting married, settling down, and pumping out 27,000 babies. It’s also a big deal because it means deciding whether or nor you’re shomer negiah.

Shomer negiah is one of those things that define us as Orthodox Jews, and as human beings. Literally, the words shomer negiah mean “a guard of your touch.” If you are a boy, you don’t touch girls; and if you’re a girl, you don’t touch boys. I had just spent the last three years living in San Francisco and not being shomer. To be in New York—with its miles of kosher restaurants and Hasidim who not only knew how to play this game, but actually played it—felt like my ultimate calling. You can play Orthodox Judaism in your backyard, but this was the major league.

Being so out of contact with the mainstream Orthodox world, I didn’t realize that there were Orthodox people who followed every law except for that one. Yet my first night in New York, I heard my roommate having his way—loudly, pronouncedly, and at great length—with one (if not two) Hasidic girls in the next room over. I covered my head with a pillow, squeezed my eyes shut, and started humming to myself the Minor Threat song “Straight Edge,” which had been my anthem ever since I learned that being a virgin could be a political choice, and that there was a whole punk movement to back me up. But…it was out there. And I could have it.

One night, Yirmi and Benji and I were out at another nightclub or meeting or salon of Young Jewish Professionals and my eyes were glued to the doors, hoping for some big-bearded rabbi to walk in, his coat the color of penguin wings and his eyes like stars, and teach me the real secrets of the universe, why the world rotates east to west and how even shit was part of G-d’s creation.

Instead, prerecorded hip-hop samples blasted over a PA system and this short, balding Jewish dude in a gold chain walked in. “What’s up, Upper West Side,” he crooned into a mic. “Are you ready to parrrrtay?”

We went home that night as an entourage, seven of us to the two-room flat where they lived: me, Yirmi, Benji, and four girls who we’d managed to pick up on the way. At first I pegged them for being recently Orthodox, just like me, because they wore street clothes and didn’t talk in Torah talk, but someone said something in Yiddish, and everyone laughed but me. Then I thought they were underage, but someone said that they had their own apartment.

And, like a flash, Benji’s arm was around one of the girls and then Yirmi’s arms was around two more of the girls and I retreated into my own head, asking myself where I was going and what kind of life was I sinking myself into, and if these were the people I was trying to be like, well then, what were they trying to be like?

I was in my head for barely five minutes, we were less than a block down the street, and already Yirmi was brushing his nose up against one girl’s nose, physically parting her lips with his fingers, getting them loose and open and ready to stick his tongue in. A plane soared low overhead. Benji broke free of his girl, threw his arms in the air and spun around and crooned, spontaneously, in the style of that M.C. from that night: “Are you ready to parrrrtay?”

They were so not ready to party. They were ready to explode, loaded with liquor and energy, and, upon reaching home, they were ready to collapse. Yirmi and Benji and their Hasidic-but-with-a-sex-drive girl-space-friends fell asleep all over the room—on the couches, on the floor, and in their beds. Yirmi, the last one standing, did not seem to mind. He excused himself, slipped under his cover between two girls, one of whom grunted, already half-asleep. The other girl licked his ear.

From his mountain of pillows, eyes half-lidded, he grinned at me. He looked straight at me as the girl licked his ear, as her impossibly long Hasidic tongue slithered around his weirdly straight earlobe, as if it was a private joke between he and I, a joke that I, by virtue of having lived in San Francisco, would immediately understand and appreciate. A look that, if it had been any more loaded, would have been an invitation to an orgy, as if he was asking: Are you down?

And I would have totally gotten down with it, too, back in the old days, between when I decided to be Orthodox and when I decided to take being Orthodox seriously. Now that I was following the rules, what did it mean if the people around me were ignoring them? Was I down? I didn’t know.

There was a paradox involved in being openly shomer negiah. If you were shomer, you could date everyone, whether they were shomer negiah or not (although, if one person was and one wasn’t, chances were, you were either going to get married or break up pretty fast.) But if you weren’t, and you did hook up with girls, then you were off-limits to anyone on the other side of the fence. Untouchable. Dirty. It was like you weren’t even Orthodox. Playing the odds, it was better to be shomer negiah. That way, you could date everyone.

It wasn’t like I hadn’t tried to date when I was in New York. One night, I answered an Internet ad. My friend Jerrica was going over Craigslist, reading the girls-who-like-boys personal ads, which he felt totally giddy and guilt-free about reading, since he was gay. There was one that reminded him of me—Did You Say Modeh Ani Every Morning, And Do You Miss It?—and he double-dared me to answer it.

So I did. And we made plans. We met up at a subway station, jumped on at Times Square, rode to the last stop before Brooklyn. We walked over the bridge, looked down over the water like we were walking directly on it, and followed its spidery descent until we were on a narrow path in the middle of cross-town traffic. She told me her story: she’d grown up Orthodox, the daughter of a rabbi. She’d learned everything forwards and backwards, could speak Yiddish fluently and read a Gemara better than I ever wished I could; but she could never believe any of it. She majored in science, because she said the Torah couldn’t agree with science. She moved to this city to get away from her family.

“New York?” I said. “You moved to New York to get away from Jews?”

She laughed. She liked the idea that I replied to her ad, an ad that she was originally afraid would sound too much like a fetish-hunter. I asked her, “What makes you think this isn’t a fetish?” She smiled at me like I’d just given her permission for something.

We kept walking. It got late, and we’d managed to walk halfway down the side of Brooklyn, to the front door of her apartment. She hesitated there, and so did I, watching her fidget with the bottom hem of her skirt, which was a few dangerous inches above her knee.

And then her mouth opened, and the question that—like Can I hold that for you? or Want some pizza?—was so rhetorical as to not need an answer, to not even need to be asked, she said to me: “Do you want to come upstairs?”

And, before I knew what the words lined up in my head were, before I could even sort the words in order or realize what they meant, my reply came tumbling out:

“No.”

And that was it. We deflated, both of us, into little shriveled-up shards of balloons. We wisped, now no more than stretched-out rubber, having fulfilled our purpose, our usefulness in each other’s lives having been outlived, and felt the wind picking up, felt ourselves being blown in opposite directions down the street.