I walk out of my yoga studio, click open the back of my SUV, throw in my Target-purchased yoga mat, climb in, and check my iPhone messages. I scan my Google calendar for any upcoming Starbucks meetings or needed Costco trips. And I realize in a dizzying moment of clarity that I have become a stereotype without even noticing. That all the products I consume and leisure I pursue are, despite my independent nature, a product of my environment.
I lived in Queens, New York for the first seven years of my life and often wonder what life would’ve been like had I stayed there. Following the trajectory of our family and friends in the early 80s, we either would have moved to Monsey, NY or the Five Towns. But circumstances instead brought me to Cleveland and so I grew up here in suburban neighborhoods and found myself becoming a midwesterner. Later on in life circumstances brought me to Israel and at one point, as a mother of three small children, considered staying there. We went apartment shopping and thought about what making aliyah would entail. And I often wonder what life would have been like had I stayed there. Following the trajectory of my peers, I would have gradually become less materialistic and more politically and religiously polarized. My kids would either have become more ultra-Orthodox or joined the army.
How would my environment have shaped what I think, what products I use, what political views I espouse, what types of exercise I do, what foods I eat, what types of jokes I think are funny?
I occupy two worlds: the Orthodox world in which I grew up, and the non-Orthodox Jewish world in which I work. I see both worlds cycling past me like one in a revolving door, and see how each world follows its cultural norms without even realizing its own caricatures. My Orthodox friends have their wigs styled similarly, wear similar clothes to weddings, forward similar memes, and follow similar political views. My non-Orthodox friends color their hair similarly, wear similar clothes to bnei mitzvah (not as many weddings there), forward similar memes, and follow similar political views. All my Orthodox mom friends drive either Honda Oddyseys or Toyota Siennas (they like ‘em black, thanks) and my non-Orthodox mom friends drive big SUVs. My Orthodox friends shop at Costco and my non-Orthodox friends at Whole Foods. My Orthodox friends are still raising young kids; my non-Orthodox friends are writing books.
Yes, I’m generalizing. Yes, I’m stereotyping. Yes, mostly it’s true.
That I cover my hair with a scarf and not the typical wig; that I am neither, strictly speaking, a Republican or a Democrat; that I order most of my groceries online; that I visit Lakewood, New Jersey (the largest Orthodox enclave in the US) regularly but feel equally comfortable in non-Orthodox circles; that I have close, deep friendships from literally every section of the community – are all a product of the colorful environments I occupy. I am both a stereotype and a stereotype-buster. I am an iconic Orthodox woman and an exception. I get to imbibe the norms of both worlds – and this makes me more cognizant than most of the fortunes and foibles of each.
And for this, I am grateful.