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The Title Ain’t Vital

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09/03/2015

The Title Ain't Vital photo

I can't forget that cloud of gray coiffured hair breezing beside Madison Street Bridge. Tell me you saw her too, perched on the florescent Home Depot bucket, in a stylish purple top that matched her pomegranate lips. Tell me you couldn't stop staring at her either, that this living Mona Lisa didn't penetrate you in a way that made your throat croak a heartbeat and eyes well-up. Shouldn't she be on her way to work like the thousands crossing the bridge and not holding up a sign that reads, "Please help me find a job"? Tell me she smiled at you too.

"Oh, so you've met Bonnie."

My dad said he's passed by her for years on his daily commute. He stops sometimes and they chat over peanut butter Chewy bars. Did I know that it was common for commuters to stop and offer Bonnie a job? No I didn't -- so why is she still there then?

We parted and my dad and I picked up the conversation around the dinner table. What if I interviewed her, her and a bunch of other homeless people around the Chicago Loop? I'd go around asking how they got to where they are, and just schmooze. I'd write up an article and pitch it the Chicago Tribune -- wouldn't that be cool?

My dad said I could call it "Bonnie By the Bridge." He smiled, clearly pleased with his alliteration. I mulled over the title, which had a Southern simplicity to it. I liked it.

But within the week, my idea invited fruit flies who were attracted to the smell of rotting reservations. How could I verify that my sources were credible? Would I be compromising my own safety by initiating conversation with strangers? What message was I trying to portray? Was it ethical to use another's financial struggle to push my own professional agenda forward?

My two years in journalism taught me that while titles hook the reader in, it's the story that keeps the reader reading. Sometimes, I realized, we are more transfixed by the title than the actual story -- and the same can often be true when it comes to Jewish observance.

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For the past three years, I've been privileged to share nearly every Sunday morning with the same chevruta, or learning buddy, reading the identical text from our year in Israel. Each Sunday we size-up our coarse Hebrew skills against Oral Law and Biblical codex, exploring topics like the step-by-step process of brit milah, Judaism's squeamish vendetta against the descendants of Amalek and why the Passover loopholes of selling chametz actually work. Currently, we're uncovering the rationale behind our Jewish "fringes."

After discussing the significance of the garb -- how the strings and precise knotting reminds us of the 613 commandments -- I looked at my friend's pixelated face and declared that I was going to start wearing tzizit. Mind you, I'm allowed one hasty remark weekly during our sessions before my chevruta usually ends up airlifting me back to less choppy waters. This was it.

Talking over my reasons for wanting to wear tzizit, I realized I wasn't cut out for the fringed linen cut-out. Women have every right to wear tzizit, and they have my wholehearted blessing if they wear them to enhance spirituality, but these impassioned few must be impervious to stares. They would have to maintain the same conviction and determination day after day in their own practice to deflect the raised-eyebrow looks, the mommy-skirt tugs, and the not-another-bra-burner eye-rolls.

I realized that I wasn't that resolute, and so I closed the Torah text feeling like I had just eaten a tub of Ben and Jerry's the day after New Year's. Through it though, I realized how awfully proud I am of the male role models in my life who openly wear kippot and/or tzizit.

I was caught up in the glorified title of being a tzizit-wearer, a feminist, a "spiritual Jew" without truly considering the full story. I was all too focused on the hoorah of declaring my right to wear them instead of envisioning the reality of wearing them and the conviction it would require.

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During my first few weeks at college I remember telling one of my best friends that the Jews here call themselves "Orthodox" but don't necessarily look or act like other "Orthodox" people I've ever met. I remember tensing up about Orthodox Jews saying they "eat dairy out" but keep their kitchens strictly kosher, or women who change into bikinis for sun-bathing on Shabbat afternoons but make it to minyan almost every week. These anomalies used to hurt my brain and prickle my scalp -- now they barely make me wince.

During a recent Shabbat I was wore a short sleeve dress with only a mild V-neck in front. The real testiness was in the back with a deep cut plunge. To synagogue I was respectful and wore a cardigan, but the 90-degree heat proved too overbearing by the time I got home, so I shook it off with a sigh of relief. The visible skin did not go unnoticed; it pains me to say that the clash of being a respectful child while determining my matured self-expression is an ongoing battle.

But for now I've stopped being startled by the different versions of Orthodoxy there are, and whether you call that becoming "open-minded" or "desensitized" is up to you. Because "Orthodox" is just another word like "tree" or "feline," which bear altering images to each and every person.

In life we can't live by these titles -- "Orthodox," "feminist," "homeless," etc. -- when the stories are in people.

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