Elie Benhiyoun · December 6, 2021
My Theatre To The World Outside
She was wearing a purple long sleeve t-shirt, had shoulder length black curls, and an intense look in her eyes. It was summer in Montreal and everyone was keenly aware of the fleeting warmth and sunshine. This year, most activities were banned and even the ones that weren’t, few people took the risk of partaking in them. It was August of 2020.
It was my tenth day of quarantine and I was preparing for a Zoom performance later that evening. The Civil Wars cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End of Love” was on and I was strumming my guitar to the beat. After a couple of rounds listening to the song, I played it myself. My voice rang out clearly and I loved when my voice sounded this way. It felt like liquid velvet and I wondered why it didn’t always sound so clear.
I was keenly aware of the eyes resting on me for quite some time now. She sat at the open back door of the kitchen, on the wrought iron staircase leading to her family's apartment above. Her father, a large man with a long black beard, told me he would keep his children indoors while my son visited so he could play in the yard. The man’s wife, deathly afraid of COVID, didn’t want her children being exposed under any circumstance. I was flattered by his generosity but I also felt bad for the kids, cooped up in the small second floor apartment.
Every day at 4pm my son went back home to his mom. Without missing a beat the kids would come bounding down the stairs to the yard. Their father would fill up a blow up pool and for an hour or so, they were free. They ran up and down the wrought iron staircase, squealing with delight. Their father stayed in the yard and played with them. In my four week stay, I never saw their mother.
There was something about these kids that made me sad. They often had a look on their face that didn’t match their age and a habit of staring without any expression. Granted, I was an anomaly in this ardently Hasidic neighborhood. With my long hair and flowy hippy clothes; almost everyone who saw me, stared.
The irony is that there was nothing out of the ordinary about them to me. For I was one of them. I was raised in a Hasidic family of eight, in an apartment woefully small for us. Then, I was the kid staring at everyone else. My parents had chosen to live in an entirely secular neighborhood of downtown Chicago, a thirty five minute drive to the nearest Hasidic community.
I stared at the joggers; shirtless men with hairy chests and bulging biceps. Women running in sports bras, thighs pressed against the fabric of their shorts. Our home had a huge window overlooking the quiet, tree lined cul de sac we lived on. It was like a theatre to the world outside of us. The world we inhabited but didn’t take part in.
Visitors were allowed and encouraged. In fact, our entire reason for living in this paradise of secularism was to invite Jewish people who lived in the neighborhood to experience their tradition and religion in our home. It was called a Chabad House. There are thousands of these outposts all over the world, operated by families just like ours. My siblings and I were always the stars of the show. These visitors became our personal friends and many of them still are as close as family today.
The minute we walked out the door, however, we were the odd ones out. No one out there could possibly understand who we were. The walls of our home weren’t around us anymore to provide context. So we were silent. We absorbed the stares and glances till we didn’t notice them anymore. Running down the street with thirty two strands of wool “tzitzit” blowing in the wind at the corners of my waist, didn’t feel weird. I was keenly aware though that the other kids on the block were the “cool” ones. Their frames more athletic, their clothes more fashionable, and just so much more… American.
My parents both fled the countries of their birth. My dad escaped Morocco to Israel under an assumed name at ten years old. Separated from his parents, he assimilated into secular Israeli culture. My mom left Iran when she was seventeen years old to study in Strasbourg, France. That year, the revolution erupted and she would never return home again. She didn’t see her parents for two years. My grandfather tells me that every time he hung up the phone with my mom he knew it could be his last.
Socially, my siblings and I integrated quite well at school and everywhere else, but I think deep down, we felt the pressure of navigating in and out of the many cultures we inhabited. Not one of those cultures being our own.
I looked at the young girl watching me, choosing to listen to me sing over the one hour of outdoors allotted to her. Soon, she called her brother, and now I had an audience of two. I smiled at them and kept playing. I wanted them to see that one of their own, a kid who was just like them, forged a path for himself through sheer willpower. That it was possible to step outside and feel like the world belonged to you. That you weren’t only allowed in once people understood and accepted you.
It was this strange reversal of roles that so starkly embodied the progress of my journey. I was no longer looking out. I was now being looked upon. I knew at any moment, their father would shoo them away, disparaging them for listening to secular pop music, moreover by someone who “lost his way.”
So I played my heart out. I played for these children, and I played for the child inside of me who never quite felt like he belonged.
It is rare to see yourself from the outside, through the eyes of someone else but who is also you. I felt a certain sense of closure that my journey had in some ways come full circle. That I wasn’t groping in the dark anymore. That I am actually the person I want to be.