I want to share a short, interesting story with you. It is not mine; it is from another Argentine Rabbi I know, Rabbi Guido Cohen. Here it is:
A couple of months ago, I was about to board a flight at JFK Airport in New York when a Lubavitcher Hasid approached me with their unmistakable question, 'Are you Jewish?' This is the first step before inviting the interlocutor to wear tefillin. I was not wearing my kippah as I prefer to travel with a cap because kippot tend to get lost when you do not have hair to clip them onto (Rabbi Cohen has been bald for several years). I was wearing jeans and a polo shirt.
I could have simply answered 'yes,' but since I am Jewish, I decided to reply in a typical Jewish fashion. He asked, 'Are you Jewish?' to which I responded, 'Are you Jewish?'
The guy pointed to his hat, beard, and black coat in one swift movement and said, 'Of course.' I mimicked the same movement and said, 'Of course I'm Jewish.'
Relentless as he was, he proceeded to ask, 'Have you put on tefillin this morning?' I replied, 'Have you put on tefillin this morning?'
He was not ready to give up, and neither was I. So he insisted and asked, 'Have you put on Rabbeinu Tam's tefillin this morning?'
Now, for those of you who are not familiar, there is a medieval debate between Rashi and his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam. 99% of Jews wear Rashi's version of the tefillin. However, there is a very small minority who believes that perhaps Rabbeinu Tam was right in his way of placing the pouches inside the tefillin, and those Jews wear both Rashi's and Rabbeinu Tam's tefillin either simultaneously or one after the other. So, he had caught me.
I have never worn Rabbeinu Tam's tefillin, neither that morning nor at any time in my life. But I was not ready to concede defeat. Without lying, I said, 'honestly not.' I had not put on Rabbeinu Tam's tefillin. The Hasid, very excited, went to look for a special bag labeled 'Rabbeinu Tam's tefillin,' and as he was pulling the tefillin out, I stopped him and said, 'Wait a second, are those for lefties?'
'Okay, you win,' he said. 'Give me a hug, and if you can, leave some tzedakah.'
That's the end of the story.
This story addresses stereotypes, not only the stereotype of this Chabadnik assuming that a Jew dressed in jeans and a polo shirt may not necessarily put on tefillin every morning like Rabbi Cohen does and like millions of Jews do without reflecting it in their attire. It also speaks about two very popular stereotypes.
The first one is related to the concept of the religious Jew. Many times, I hear people wrongly speaking about religious Jews as those who dress in black and have peot (side curls that some Jews wear). We should reconsider the term "religious." A religious Jew is someone who follows the laws of the Torah, the mitzvot. We must recognize that not all mitzvot have to do with praying three times a day and wearing tefillin, as many of us do. Moreover, it is not for us to establish that one mitzvah is more important than another. Therefore, not respecting the rights of a woman is as bad as not following kashrut. Failing to pay our employees on time or not contributing to the congregation we attend is no less serious than not attending the morning prayers on Shabbat.
On the other hand, we know that there are different religious movements within Judaism. To name just a few, there are Orthodoxy, Neo-Orthodoxy or Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative or Masorti, Reconstructionist, Reform, and different variations within each one. Within each of these movements, we find Jews who are more or less religious or observant of the law. Therefore, when talking about religious or observant Jews, we should refer to the religious Jews of which specific movement we are speaking about, without going into details about how each one dresses. Assuming that not dressing in black means a Jew does not wear tefillin is a mistake. A similar mistake as assuming that a Jew who does not dress in black doesn't fulfill mitzvot.
The second stereotype is what a Rabbi looks like. Rabbis have multiple ways of being seen, just as Jews in general do. Enclosing our minds to a stereotypical image only distorts our history, our tradition, and our law to a single interpretation. Judaism has never been about having a single way of seeing things, neither the laws nor the customs. Judaism has always been about the opposite: seeking consensus through argumentative confrontation.
After hearing Rabbi Cohen's story and having enjoyed Jewtica on Sunday, June 11th, I understood why I liked the promotional poster created by our designer, Sara Tisch, so much. It showed different faces of different ethnicities with an inscription that said, "This is What Jewish Looks Like". The same feeling was generated by the T-shirt that the organizing committee offered to the attending rabbis at Jewtica to wear during the event, which had an inscription that said, "This is What a Rabbi Looks Like."
That's exactly how we looked: as Kibutz Galuiot Jews, Jews coming from all around the world, or just Jews.
Rabbi Gustavo Geier