My downstairs neighbor is an older, self-described "not so religious" Jewish lady who lives with her cat and is surprisingly friendly to my family. This has led me to conclude that she is either hard of hearing or soft on judging. I can't imagine what it would be like to have lived below us for the last five years. In that time we've had two newborns, countless play dates, a bike, a trike, and various other accouterments rolled and pushed across the floor of our apartment. We try to banish the really annoying toys, but just the other day I was awakened by a torture device (with a smiley face on it) - a combination drum/whistle that whacks itself when you twist it and shrills when you blow it. And since this has turned into a mea culpa about my family's auditory transgressions, I'll let you in on another little secret: we don't always remember to use our inside voices.
But I digress. I mention my downstairs neighbor because she'll ask me Jewish questions from time to time and just the other day, as we were riding up the elevator, she asked what kind of hats my friends and I wear as she's thinking of starting a hat business.
The conversation went something like this:
Neighbor (I don't know her name - this is New York, people): "What kind of hats do you and your Orthodox friends wear?"
Me: "Uh, I dunno, anything that's cute."
Neighbor: "Don't you wear pillbox hats or something?"
Me: "Pillbox hats? No. No - that's what some Chasidic women wear over their wigs. I'm not Chasidic. I'm Orthodox, but not Chasidic. (You didn't think I was Chasidic, did you?) I mean, we're similar, but also pretty different."
Neighbor: "Oh, OK, so then what kinds of hats do you and your friends wear?"
Me: "I dunno, open a magazine and see what they're wearing. That's what we wear."
This conversation illustrated for me that just as a non-Asian person might look at a group of Asians (from various countries) and ignorantly think, "they all look the same to me," many non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews seem to have similar sentiments about the religious Jewish community as a whole.
I don't blame anyone for thinking like this -- it's natural to not understand the nuances of a group when you observe them from the outside in, so here are a few basic things to keep in mind about us:
1) There are many, many different types of Orthodox Jews out there (including, but not limited to): Chasidic, Yeshivish, Modern, Centrist, Sephardic, hippie/spiritual, and Lubavitch (a branch of Chasidim, but different than most other Chasidim when it comes to their interaction with the larger world).
2) Not all men with hats and beards are Chasidic. Yep - you heard me. Chasidim of course wear hats - some fedora-styled, some with fur, but Yeshivish men also wear black hats, though only the fedora kind. Now if you really want to get confused, there's even a group of people, native to Jerusalem, (called Yerushalmim in Hebrew) where the men wear fur hats and long coats, but are not Chasidic (or Yeshivish for that matter)!
3) Many of these groups stay within themselves and don't intermingle with the other Orthodox communities. This part saddens me, but as there are differences of opinion amongst the various groups, it often leads to disagreements and lack of interaction between one another. What that means in practical terms is that even though I'm a Sabbath-observing, kosher-eating, wig-wearing Orthodox Jew, there are times that even I pass religious Jews (outside of my community) on the street and I wonder what they're about.
The most basic distinctions between the different communities arise in terms of philosophical issues (i.e. how much or how little to be a part of the secular world, the attitude towards college education, the state of Israel, what areas of Judaism to put an emphasis on, be it learning, prayer, spirituality, rationality, acts of kindness, etc.) and practical observances (customs, traditions, way of dress).
Despite the fact that the outside world thinks of Orthodox Jews as a completely homogeneous group, the traditional Jewish approach has always been pro-diversity (within the boundaries of Jewish law) going as far back as the twelve tribes of Israel, which each had its own unique flavor.
Which was kind of a nice thing for me to discover when I became observant - that I could keep quite a bit of myself in my newfound religious-self - cute hats and all.