My Ultra-Orthodox Friend: The Beginning of a Wonderful Relationship
by Orna Oshri in Yediot Acharonot newspaper (free translation)
1) I open with a confession: I am an atheist, an avowed atheist, devoutly irreligious, a dedicated ‘chiloni’ [secular], an enthusiastic denier and skeptic.
My first philosophical memory takes me back to the age of five or six one ordinary summer’s day as I sat on a tree branch. I looked up to the heavens and thought about the stories adults told about that great but hidden G-d in the sky. At that moment I came to the conclusion that this childish notion no longer applied to a person of my advanced age.
2) Decades passed without any significant or passing interaction with ‘dossim’ [religious people]. They lived in their distant world, of which I had little knowledge, while I matured within my irreligious world: a world filled with scientific quests, adventure, art, music, movies and the beach. Here and there, maybe due to some kind of pleasure gained from cultural ties, I found myself lighting Shabbat candles. At age 16 I would light them simply because they shone a pleasant light in my room, and at 14 I recall trying to fast the entire day on Yom Kippur, just to prove that I could. As I reached my late twenties, I left for Tel Aviv where I enjoyed a sinful existence with great (almost religious) fervour and devotion (kasher lemehadrin).
3) It’s not that a million questions didn’t arise throughout the years about our religion, about religion in general, those who believe, about mitzvot, joint national responsibility and of course, the ever irritating place of the woman in Judaism. Above all these questions hovered one that was most important in my view: How is that even now, in the 21st century, the vast majority of humanity devotes itself to a collective fantasy, so strange and unproven? There are many answers to these questions, most within the realm of psychology, but none are sufficiently satisfying for me.
4) I met my ‘dossi’ (ultra orthodox) friend sometime last winter during a journalistic tour of Bnei Brak. Between a visit to a Chareidi girls school and a peek into the maternity hospital, I found myself accepting a lift in Rikki’s car. A Charedi woman in her thirties and pregnant for the 7th time, I argued with her against the idea that her husband and his friends were saving the country with their Torah learning (instead of serving in the army). Towards the end of the day I asked her if she believes in Heaven and Hell, and she answered affirmatively with absolute certainty. "With that our relationship ends," I told her with a smile. She shook my hand and told me that it was just beginning.
5) At the end of the tour, after a sumptuous meat meal and parve desert, Rikki suggested we join her ‘Chavrutah’ program, a project that brings religious and irreligious Israelis together (mainly women) in a weekly telephone conversation. This caught my imagination, possibly because I felt that a great divide stood between us - a disagreement that could be both engaging and could fuel a good few long conversations, and also because I recognized that she had a "good head" [was easy to talk to]. I took up the offer, and announced that I would join on condition that she herself would be my chavrutah, giving her ample space to take a run for it. Rikki did not faint, stating that I would be a good challenge for her. (It took me some time to really understand just what she meant by that, but I’ll come to that soon.)
6) We began our chavrutah late each Monday evening just after she put the last of her children to bed and began to fold piles of laundry (it turned out that our conversation would make the job easier) . Our phone conversations soon lengthened from an hour to an hour and a half and into two hours or more as I fired questions at her from a non-religious point of view, and of course giving my side as well (I’m not built for one-sided contact). Sometimes, when she had no ready answer, she would pass the phone over to her husband until he and I would be sharing Jewish jokes like two yentas. Two months on, we met up with the entire family in their Bnei Brak home, and of course, being well brought up, I immediately returned the invitation. I had never hosted so many ‘dossim’ in my home at once, or anywhere for that matter, but with the help of plenty of plastic plates, we discovered that it was more than do-able.
7) It isn’t easy to briefly sum up everything that has happened over the last year or so, but there is no doubt that Rikki and I conquered significant positions in each other's hearts and minds. I call her ‘honored Rebbitzen’ while she has playfully nicknamed me ‘the woman.' Over and above the daily conversations and periodic visits, we have been there for one another during days of mourning, convalescence after illness, joyous times after birth, family events and holidays. It goes without saying that I am almost fluent at saying the Grace after Meals and plenty of other mitzvot and customs, those of course that Rikki and the children feel I should do and that I feel comfortable with.
8) So why did this mean that I was ‘a challenge’ for her? It meant that it would be interesting and difficult for her to make me religious. After all, no matter what, to paraphrase the words of Meir Ariel, ‘at the end of each scentence uttered by a religious Jew sits a chareidi who wants to bring you closer to the light’. In the beginning, that really is their intention, but I’ve learned to forgive them. They don’t do this out of any bad will, rather out of love.
9) I close with a confession: I am an atheist who is crazy about "dossim."