x-posted from the Jewish Chronicle

In my Orthodox world, an ‘invisible mechitzah’ prohibits valuable friendships.

I had tea with my friend David the other day. And it was fun. But when I told my husband that I went to tea with a classmate — a male classmate — his face was less than sunny. It contorted with jealousy as he explained that it wasn’t appropriate for me to be having tea with another man. When I argued my case (“We were in Starbucks, for G-d’s sake!”), my husband eventually relented. But the whole experience left me thinking about the state of male-female friendships in the Orthodox world.

I remember a time when most of my friends were boys. Before I converted, boys made up more than 50 per cent of my crew of friends. These were friendships that had never been sullied by messy boy-girl game playing. When my friend, AD, put in my air conditioner, sure, the neighbors wondered if he was my boyfriend, but I assured them there was nothing there. AD was just handy with tools, and even handier as a broad shoulder to cry on.

Then there was Stathis, who treated me like a kid sister, making me tuna fish sandwiches when I visited his dorm. And my friend, metrosexual Mark, was, well, largely immune to my tomboy charm. AD, Stathis and Mark could have been my best girlfriends were it not for certain body parts.

During my conversion to Judaism, I had a set of Jewish girlfriends who congregated together for Shabbos sleepovers. But I also had a matching set of close guy friends who were mostly Modern Orthodox yeshivah students. No one clued me into the fact that these relationships might be anything other than normal. I knew they could not be alone with me in a room, but that just meant that I hung out with them in groups of, well, mostly guys. They seemed to accept me despite my skirt.

Then I summered at a Charedi conversion school in Israel. When a fellow female classmate asked whether she should move if a man sat next to her on the bus, I almost laughed out loud. But my laughter went cold when I realized she was serious and no one else in the room was laughing. My brow furrowed in consternation as I announced that my best friend back home was M-A-L-E. All eyes shifted to me. When I glanced at the headmistress, I could swear her eyes were daggers and that puffs of smoke flamed from her nostrils.

The shock was too much to stomach for a recovering tomboy. Surely, these rules didn’t apply to the Modern Orthodox crowd where I had developed such close friendships with men, usually Cohens, who were, again, like the best girlfriends I’d never had.

But I found out soon enough that the same rules did apply. As soon as I got married, or my guy friends got married, our friendships tanked. They didn’t become more distant, they became non-existent. I found myself wishing that all my male friends were women (acknowledging that would be hard on their wives). So, instead, I stopped wishing and started sulking.

I suffered silently from the lack of companionship of my pseudo big brothers; guys who I know would have defended my honor like real brothers. I just sat with the girls in one corner. I rolled my eyes through conversations about shoes, clothes, cooking and (oh no!) sheitel upkeep. I looked longingly at the other end of the table where my husband and the other men seemed to be enjoying more scintillating discussion. I am not sure how I shall ever recover from my loss. Maybe that’s why I had tea with David. And I enjoyed it. It took me back to a time before restrictive gender roles erected an invisible mechitzah between me and my guy friends.