As an Orthodox Jew, one thing I’m not supposed to do on Shabbat (i.e. Friday night – Saturday night) is carry stuff around outside. Okay, that’s not totally true, because if there is an eruv (Wikipedia: “ritual enclosure”) that encircles an area and renders it private property, then carrying is okay. (FYI There’s a lot of “rendering” shit and scare quotes that goes on in Jewish legal discussion.) Anyway, we don’t have one of those, and the situation gets complicated when I want to get into my dorm room. Actually, carrying a Prox is doubly problematic because not only is carrying prohibited, but so is using electronics. (Useful heuristic for the uninitiated: if it’s fun, it’s prohibited. Also, if it’s work it’s prohibited too.) To solve the electricity problem, housing secretly gives the relevant people manual building keys. The solution cooked up by some Rabbis to the carrying problem was to make the keys part of a belt, by replacing the belt prongs with the keys. One is therefore no longer technically “carrying” anything. While I appreciate the legalistic insight, what I don’t think the Rabbis realized is that this is ridiculously awkward.
There are a few layers of awkwardness here. Some are inherent in the outfit, while others emerge in the course of using the key-belt to open the door. The process is more or less as follows: 1) Wear the belt-key. 2) Approach building door, take off belt key. 3) Use belt-key to unlock door. 4) Enter building, replace belt-key. 5) Pretend like nothing unusual happened.
These problems require further elaboration, so here it is.
The belt itself: Honestly, this belt is a piece of shit. I’m not one of those belt snobs, but seriously, this belt sucks. I understand that we get it for free, and so it has to be cheap. But if I had to guess why it costs so little, it would be because it was made with leather from a cow that died of hide cancer. I could ignore the pockmarked leather and move on with my life if it weren’t for the fact that this belt has keys instead of prongs. That looks ridiculous. Normally when attending services I want to wear a nice, tucked-in, button-down shirt. I’m not about to buy extra long shirts just so I can leave it slightly tucked in while simultaneously covering this malignancy. Maybe I should factor this into the cost of tuition? I think from here on out I might just forget about the belt and keys altogether and instead casually sleep elsewhere on Fridays. “Dude, I’m sooo tired, think I’m just gonna crash here in East Pyne tonight… Public Safety is chill, right?”
Using the belt key: There are a few steps involved here.
1) Taking off the belt: Look around. Is anyone there? I carefully begin sliding my belt out of my pants. Will PSafe see me? I’m taking off my belt in public. I don’t know if that is okay. I’m now sweating profusely. If I go too fast, it will probably get caught in my belt loops. If I go too slowly, then the chances someone sees me go up, like a lot. The level of precision required here cannot be exaggerated. Shit, too fast. It’s hanging off my pants and I can’t get it to move. Someone’s reported me to Shirley Tilghman. Donald P. Reichling is drafting a “Campus Alert.” It’s all over. FML.
2a) Having a building key (in the abstract): This was awkward enough when manual keys existed at Princeton, but keyless locks have only made this worse. In the past, there was the off chance that someone witnessing me delicately opening my building door would not notice anything strange. After all, they have keys too. Maybe I’m just really drunk and thought I was in my room, which would explains both my key and my getting undressed. That’s at least pretty cool. But now, they’re just like: “Shit. Why does he have a key? What is that shit?”
2b) Opening the door with a belt: Okay, let’s assume the above didn’t happen. (You’ll agree that it can, however.) I have the belt in hand, and am prepared to open the door. Opening doors with a manual key is hard enough as it is. Now, imagine having to do that with the added weight and general lack of maneuverability of a belt made from an extremely dense tumor. There’s little chance that an onlooker will mistake what’s happening for something normal. I didn’t just take off my belt and also happen to take out my key, which I am now using. I’m actually using the belt to open the door. Now people are quietly speculating that I’m a lurer who must’ve made the trip from Rider University. Damnit, Reichling, not every guy taking off his belt has lascivious intent.
3) Replacing the belt: Honestly, this part isn’t so bad. Once I’m in, the saga is pretty much over. Basically, the only realistic option is to attempt to put the belt in my pocket. Unless the pants have big pockets (they sometimes do), this doesn’t work fully, but it can generally be remedied by some unusual arm placement over the violating region. Then I could be covering anything. Maybe even a normal belt.
4) Acting Normal: Naturally, after such a close call I am bound to be a bit nervous. I think it’s kind of like PTSD. I can’t just give it away by looking suspicious. What makes this worse is that I don’t have a cell phone (they’re electronic), so I can’t avoid peoples’ eyes by pretending to be texting. Instead I opt for a determined hustle. I’m going somewhere really important, but forgot something in my room. But I also kind of have a pain in my leg, which is why I’m covering my pocket area. A slight grimace is sometimes necessary to make this convincing. This is some Daniel Day-Lewis shit.
* * *
Soon enough the process ends, at least for the week. Recently, however, there has been some discussion about finding a permanent solution to this problem of the shabbat key by circumventing the prohibition on carrying by erecting an eruv. This marks somewhat of a historic shift. The main religious challenges Jews face in 21st century America are no longer physical and externally enforced, but are products of our own emotional and intellectual agitation. The awkwardness I perceive when I use my belt-key is not an objective feature of the circumstance. (The notion of objective awkwardness is, after all, conceptually opaque: situations are typically called “awkward” when one party to an encounter assumes something about the way other parties relates to that encounter, projecting her impressions onto the other.) In the past, the eruv marked the outskirts of Jewish neighborhoods, in which they established their own standards of behavior, largely unaware and unconcerned with others’ norms. At Princeton, the primary function of this eruv will be to make a few dozen students feel more comfortable in a multicultural environment. This ritual enclosure, symbolizing and historically serving as a method of demarcation and separation, has now been recast as an agent of inclusion and normalization.
While this development is mostly a cause for excitement and relief, it does give me a slight moment of pause. As I see it, most of the actions I take are in large part predetermined, products of decisions I made in the past and do not constantly revisit. But when I use the Shabbat key, each moment is a struggle (to avoid being arrested). I want to stop. Instead, higher-order priorities trump immediate inclinations, and I recommit. With the arrival of an eruv, what was once an active observance, a statement of purpose, may become passive, a mere accident of context. Fortunately, I can take peculiar comfort in the excessive number of awkward rituals that remain.