In 1984, the concept of modesty in dress was not new to me. I had met on vacations some very admirable religious women who covered their hair, either with scarves or with wigs. However, where I was living in northern Europe, there was no one to give me an example to follow. I was seriously interested in knowing more about Orthodoxy and was an avid student, albeit on a philosophical level, and had not yet come to terms with the women's aspects of observance. Most of the literature which I had read, about prayer and the commandments, was geared to men. I had little, if any, appreciation for the fact that much of what I liked about this way of life had little to do with the style of my life at the moment.
This particular spring, I was going with two children to visit family in the U.S. and I had put on some comfortable clothing for the trip. I would need to weather this long flight, stopover and transfer in London without my husband. When one spends a few hours waiting in the passenger lounge before and/or between flights, one needs to give lively children a chance to stretch their legs and burn off some energy. I wore a pair of culottes and a durable tan sweatshirt over a checkered blouse. This way, I thought I'd be well covered and capable of extricating my charges out of any crazy situation they might cook up, like hiding under a double row of seats and refusing to crawl out in time for boarding!
As boarding time for our transfer flight in London drew near, there appeared out of nowhere a young chassidic couple with an infant. She was the embodiment of all I had recognized as noble in my far-away orthodox friends. Her scarf wrapped in an elegant twist, she was intently reciting Tehillim while jostling the infant. Her husband, who led the way, avoided looking up at anything which beckoned to the right or the left. He settled quickly into a seat to peruse his mishnayos. I was a goner for anything looking so pristinely Jewish and I wished I'd had the freedom to go over and offer my acquaintance, for what it was worth. I was literally starving to digest the crumbs of Jewish wisdom which could be culled from any religious Jew. Alas, I was rendered immobile by the hand luggage and the kids. Anyway, we were all to board the big bird in a moment.
Soon after finding our seats, I watched this adorable couple make their way to the section behind mine, oblivious to what was going on around them, just intent on finding their places and claiming them. How I envied them the purity of their visages, the simplicity of their united indifference to the crowd around them and their serenity amidst the hustle and bustle of the cabin. I felt so much on show with my lively girl and boy.
I would have loved to find that my seat was next to hers. I would have spent the flight exchanging pleasantries, learning new tidbits about the life I wanted so much to follow. It was not to be.
After another moment or two, I heard my name over the loudspeaker. I was asked to come to the galley to speak with the stewardess together with two other women. The problem was an insufficient number of Glatt Kosher meals to go around. There we stood. Was this my chance to make an opener?
The gorgeous young woman looked at me incredulously, as if to say, "How interesting that someone dressed like you (sans head covering) is interested in Glatt Kosher." She opened her mouth and what words of wisdom poured forth? "We can do without. I prepared sandwiches just in case we'd need them at some point. Please take the kosher meals." I thanked her profusely, explaining to her that I was, indeed, a candidate for conversion. She gave me one more look which, try as she might, did not disguise her bafflement. She wished me well and we parted.
I was quite disappointed. Not in her but in me. How could I have thought that my get-up would in any way underline the intensity and the sincerity of my interest? She was what I had wished I could have been had I known earlier in life exactly what the Truth I sought was. In any case, I had come this far and was even more determined to use this lesson well.
If I wanted to identify with the people who believed in the Torah from Har Sinai, and if I was eager to connect to other Jews wherever I might meet them, then why would I undermine that interest by wearing clothing which declared the opposite? Why should I be embarrassed to signal to other Jews that I'm available for a chat, a helping hand, the comfort and company of a fellow traveler with the same mindset?
From then on, I vowed that I would cover my hair and learn to dress the way these brave troopers do. I also learned to prepare food for trips, in case no Kosher meals were available and to defer privileges which would have been mine to the next person, should the need arise. I would try to live up to the example that this poised and prepared young woman had taught me.
It wasn't easy, but it was much more than worth it! It takes a long time to weed out a wardrobe and painstakingly add each new piece, trying to get all of the details right. Slowly and surely, I progressed as time moved on.
One summer, I was stuck in a European vacation abode and we needed to avail ourselves of kosher amenities, which were located in another large city. We knew such services were available there, as we had a tour book with phone numbers and addresses. There were two such addresses but only one phone number. So I called the number, made an appointment and hoped that when I arrived, Hashem would lead me to the information about the level of kashrus of the organization with the phone.
After the long train ride, I alighted and quickly took in the busy scene around me. I noticed among the hustle and bustle, two lovely young women alighting and being greeted by another woman with a baby carriage. Having never been in this Northern European city before, I was amused to see that they were dressed in such a familiar fashion, but didn't really give it much thought. Foreign countries all have their idiosyncrasies. That's what makes traveling so exciting. One is forever noticing and comparing what this one does similar to that one or vice versa.
I was busy trotting down the platform at a fast pace, hoping to quickly find the right trolley or bus route into the Jewish neighborhood, when the woman with the buggy ran up breathlessly next to me and offered to take me to her home!
I was absolutely flabbergasted! My husband and I had spent nearly 13 years living and working in Europe. We had, in this time, traveled extensively by ferry, train and by foot. We had spent six weeks traveling through Holland, Belgium and England one summer. We had hiked in Switzerland, Austria, France, Italy and roamed here and there in the good old USA, but never, ever had someone come running up to me, out of the blue, to plead with me to accompnay her home!
I frantically looked to see if she was sporting missionary symbols and I politely declined. She continued running next to me, pushing her buggy, and asked me to please reconsider. How did she know that I speak English, I wondered? I was quite puzzled. Friendly people, these, I thought.
When she persisted, I finally asked her, "Why are you inviting me? There are other people around here, too." She stopped and said, "When I see a frum lady in town whom I don't know, of course I want to invite her into my home!"
Now I was thoroughly delighted! This was the first time I had come to personally encounter such an eager perpetrator of hospitality. This wonderful British woman was picking up two of her close friends from the Gateshead Seminary when they had noticed me getting off the train.
So it wasn't European locals who were dressed so nicely, and it wasn't someone out to trap me. It was Hashem letting me know that I'd arrived, not only in this foreign city, but also in a place called home.
She drove us all to her apartment and we had refreshments while she called to place my halachic queries. The stores I was hoping to shop in wouldn't open for an hour or two, but in the meantime, I was comfortably chatting with these three lovely girls, cooing with the baby and looking at the hostess' wedding album. All of my uncertainties were solved in one fell swoop! The service I had ordered was definitely up to my standards and I could relax and rest after my journey, with fellow `frummies.'
After arriving home, it hit me. The only reason this woman trusted me and dared to take me home with her was because I covered my hair and was dressed in the proper modest clothing of an orthodox Jewish woman. Hashem had given me a sign that I had indeed arrived. I had arrived at my station. I felt like a good Jewish daughter.
Since then, I have realized that through the ages, a Jew was recognized and welcomed when he was out on the road. His fellow Jews knew he was looking for a minyon, a kosher meal, a heimishe place to put down his bag and stretch his weary feet. When you are not afraid to identify with your inner self and you're not afraid to show your identity on the outside, then you'll connect with other Jews who know your needs and are eager to help you. This is true Ahavas Yisroel -- love for Jewishness, love for Jewish identity and love for a fellow Jew. Extending one's self for the comfort of others.
What a tremendous deed this determined young woman did for me! It made the whole of my trip so easy and pleasant. I shudder to think what I might have suffered if I had not been invited, if she had dropped her invitation after my first refusal, or if she had not persisted until I had relented. How would I have been able to carry on with my business? In the end, I clearly saw that this was a case of Hashgacha.
Hashem sent a Gateshead graduate whom I could trust to the train station to greet me. She persisted in chasing after me beyond the call of duty. She knew better than I did what she could offer me. She pampered me and drove me directly to my destination later in the day, while her girlfriends babysat. I had a wonderful glimpse of the inner cogs of her community in this European city.
I am pleased to share this story with others to strengthen them in their reliance on Hashem's loving Providence. "How good is our lot and how pleasant our destiny." Perhaps by some Providence, my hostess will read and recognize the story after the some sixteen years which have passed and be pleased that in addition to her hospitality, she had shown warmth to a convert. May she, along with all those who open their doors to fellow Jews, be enriched with everything that can be considered a blessing!