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Jewish Journal

My Haredi Headwound

by Orit Arfa

September 9, 2009 | 6:32 pm

Is Orit getting punished for showing too much skin?

You’ll never believe it. I was walking down an alleyway in the Old City of Jerusalem with my mother, when, all of a sudden an Arab burst out of a corner, grabbed me from behind, and put a dagger near my forehead, threatening to kidnap me if I didn’t give him the cobblestone on which I was standing. He said it belonged to the Palestinians.

Quickly, I performed a backhanded wax-on/wax-off (from the Karate Kid) until the dagger flew out of his hand, only to scrape a layer of skin at the edge of my hairline. He bolted.

You’re right not to believe this story, but I’m trying to think of some heroic tale to explain this dorky gauze patch on my forehead.

The true story, however, is very unsexy. In fact, it’s very modest.

I had just rented a car and drove to attend a Torah class at a religious Breslev yeshiva where I was scheduled to interview the English translator of a popular religious marital guide, Garden of Peace, which teaches men to treat women like royalty—NEVER to criticize them and ALWAYS to make them feel number one. The author cautions women not to read it lest they use it as a weapon. What can I say? I’m a bad Jewish girl.

Maybe that’s why I forgot my sweater at home, meant to protect me not only from the Jerusalem chill—but from the stones. The yeshiva was located at the edge of Mea She’arim, Jerusalem Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) neighborhood, notorious for tossing stones at women in immodest dress.

I wore a pink dress revealing my décolleté. I drove frantically along narrow, one-way Israeli roads, taxis honking at every slow turn, to find a clothing shop to buy a shawl. No luck. So I risked a few bare steps where we found some shawls handy at the yeshiva.

Only now I left my laptop in the car. New to this Mazda hatchback, I struggled to open the trunk until, BAM! The door whacked me in the head.

Through the car’s mirror I noticed a big patch of red. Blood. It wasn’t dripping, but a piece of skin had been shaved off, dangling below the wound. Having just landed from Los Angeles two days earlier, I needed this hole in the head like, well, a hole in the head.

Why me? Why now? The problem with questions like these is that your brain (no matter how busted) tries to find an answer.

I thought of the the other popular religious book this rabbi translated, Garden of Emuna, which teaches people that every difficulty in life—illness, financial troubles, marriage problems—happens not only for a reason—but for the best, for the intention of soul correction.

Is God whacking me in the head before Yom Kippur as a kaparah—an atonement—for some sin I committed? For my problems with haredi dress preference? For my vanity? For by general bad-Jewish-girlness?

I ran back to the yeshiva and looked for a bathroom, a dirty little closet with cracked tiles and no mirror above the sink.

I spotted a man with short, dirty blonde hair and a black kippah.

“Where’s a bathroom with a mirror,” I asked, frantic. “I need a mirror.”

I forgot. I’m a woman—a vain, unvirtuous one. He froze and turned his eyes away.

“I got hurt!” I clarified in Hebrew, hugging the shawl around my upper body. “I hit my forehead.” He paused to give himself permission to look, which he did for two seconds before directing me to the side of the building where a door opened to a book warehouse. A few religious young men appeared to be working.

I don’t think they were used to raving, outspoken women. I was on the verge of tears. “I hurt myself! I need a mirror to see how bad it is!”

“It’s not so bad,” said one dark man with a beard and frizzy payos. “Just put a bandaid.”

“And where am I supposed to get this bandaid?” He looked and shrugged at his friend, as if to say, “I don’t know.”

“I need a mirror!” I insisted. I wanted to add: “Do you not believe in mirrors?” but I held my tongue; that’s mean. Still, the bad Jewish girl in me got angry, and I wanted to go even further: “You claim yourselves to represent the ideal of Jewish practice, yet you can’t help your fellow man—probably because she is a woman?! No wonder people don’t like ultra-Orthodox Jews. This is a hilul hashem (desecration of God’s name)!” I made a bloody mental note to bring up this treatment to the rabbi.

Finally, they directed me to the mirror of a motorcycle parked over some broken pavement. I looked. At least the blood didn’t move.

I ran back to my mother, crying like a baby. She was waiting in the women’s section that didn’t have a mechitzah (divider to separate the men and women), but a veritable wall with a thin slit in the center.

My mother and a very nice American lady named Bracha came out to help me. We found out there was a health clinic literally a five minute walk away. There, a very sweet, plump nurse in her 60s with a yellow bob that I think was natural (the hair, not the color) immediately cleaned my wound and told me that I needed a tetanus shot (which I needed like another hole in the head). The doctor on duty, a younger woman with blonde-grayish hair referred me, in her Russian accent, to a plastic surgeon at another branch a ten minute cab ride away.

Fortunately, I had continued paying my monthly Israeli national insurance dues, so I was covered. (An argument, one might say, for national health care. Then again, the receptionists at the entrance, who might as well have been filing their nails, told me the plastic surgeon wasn’t on duty, and I persisted to another floor to find out that indeed he was.)

The plastic surgeon, a round man in his 50s whose kippah consisted of a round, shiny bald spot, told me, matter-of-factly, that if I wanted to save my forehead from a serious dent, I needed two stitches. He cared, but didn’t really show it. In a matter of six minutes, he lay me on the table, and while I held my mother’s hand, he shot me with some local anesthesia, and sewed me up. Afterward, I got my tetanus shot. His quick treatment redeemed this experience.

Now when I walk around Jerusalem with gauze over my head wound, people look at me funny. I tell myself that they’re looking at me because they think I’m pretty (so much for vanity control)—and that it’s just a hole in the head (well, maybe two holes)—and that maybe my story isn’t so unsexy after all.

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