The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

June 18, 2013 by

Take Off That Hat:
A Message to My Subway Harasser

large_238854221In the span of two weeks a few months ago, I was sexually harassed twice on the subway. The first time, an older, white-bearded Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] man drove his thumb straight into my right butt cheek. The second time, a secular-looking fellow with a mop of brown curls and a computer bag over his trench-coated shoulder flashed me, gently tossing his penis from hand to hand a few feet from me while I waited for the train.

Both these experiences were upsetting and degrading. But I found myself more upset by the Haredi man groping me than I was by the religiously-not-identifiable schlub who decided that I absolutely must see his member. And since then, I’ve been wondering: Why do I care so much more about the Haredi guy?

Was it the fact that the first experience involved physical contact, while the second was only a visual assault? That said, both the old man copping a very emphatic and unwanted feel and the middle-aged man deciding I absolutely needed to see his member registered as such profound violations that I would be hard-pressed to call one worse than the other.

Was it because one guy was a Jew while the other one wasn’t, at least, not as far as I know? That explanation definitely doesn’t do it for me. I’ve never been comfortable holding Jews to a higher level of moral accountability than I do others just because we happen to be co-religionists. For me, a person who did a bad thing is just that: a person who did a bad thing. Whether he’s Jewish or not is beside the point.

Beyond his aggressive physicality and his specific religious affiliation, my real issue with my Haredi assailant was… his hat. It was a beautiful hat—more of a cap really, one of those soft black astrakhan creations with the deep dent and high peaked sides that cost less than a shtreiml but still probably an arm and a leg.

For weeks after I was groped, every time I saw any kind of black fur hat—and in New York in December, this is a fairly frequent occurrence—I cringed with fear and fury, exactly as I had when I was touched so unexpectedly. The hat symbolized what was wrong with that man: He was a hypocrite. His hat (and his white beard, his white shirt, his impeccably tailored suit and matching overcoat) made a statement of piety, adherence to a set of rules about modesty, about treating other human beings with dignity and respect according to the laws of Torah, about a commitment to striving for holiness. And in light of his behavior, all of these statements are patently false, and that falsehood is disgusting.

You could argue that my flasher was putting on a similar charade, wearing a trench coat and work clothes and carrying a computer bag to create a credible façade of decency. But faking respectability and faking faith are totally different, and while he’s certainly not first on my list of people to nominate for the Congressional Medal of Honor, in this case, I am inclined to think his sin the lesser of the two.

If you’re going to disrespect women (or anyone) in such a foul way, you don’t get to wear a fancy fur hat that through which you self-designate as someone who fears God. It’s a lie, and it’s an insult to people who take their commitment to religion seriously, both those who do and those who don’t choose to showcase that commitment through our attire. Not only did that man disrespect my body and my dignity, he also insulted the sincerity of my faith through the insincerity of his.

So, my fine-fur-capped friend, wherever you are, I’ve got a couple of suggestions for you. Number one, keep your hands to yourself.

And number two, take off that hat.

Nathalie Gorman is a digital media professional by day and a writer by nights and weekends. She lives in Brooklyn, and can be found on the internet at Nattily.

Photo credit: photo credit: Janrito Karamazov via photopin cc