When my grandparents took the boat over from Turkey to the States in the early 1900s, they settled into a corner of New York that was flourishing with Sefardic Jews, where Ladino was the lingua franca, and the smell of borekas, garlic, pashtedas and raki hung in the air. While my father learned English as soon as he started school, developed an understanding of the “American way,” and was integrated into the American culture relatively quickly, the process was much more difficult for my grandparents. Eventually, by going out into the broader, English speaking community through work, contacts and friends made through their children, reading, and just living through the years as life happened, they became more “American.” But they always were different (Baruch Hashem!) They brought their Jewish, Mediteranean identity with them. They lived for years in their supportive Sefardic enclaves, venturing out more and more and ultimately becoming respected, productive Americans citizens.
I think there are definite parallels here to our entrance and integration into the “frum” world. Like them, I’ve come from a particular place in the world with a different language, different customs, ways of dress, and world view. My goal -to become a citizen of the Torah world – can be achieved by strategies similar to those that worked for my grandparents.
First of all it’s, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a very difficult thing to do. Just moving to a place where no one knows you, even within the same culture is very challenging – kal vechomer – moving to a place where our languge, dress, and names have all been different. I think that to maximize success, we need to live in a place where we have a support system of others in our new home who also speak our former langugage, who knew us in the old country (or at least they knew the old country), with whom we can share and gain strength from. This way, they can mirror back to us our essential selves, that even though so much has changed and is changing about us, we are still in our core the same valuable and worthy individual that we were before. We are in the process of movement, change and growth, and we need to have that safe, warm nest to return to.
Another thing that’s important: So much has to go, there are so many changes, so many habits to break and new pathways to forge, that I feel it’s important to live with as much of our previously chosen life as we can (always of course checking with what is halachically acceptable in each case). The “Eshet Chayil” brings her sustenance from foreign shores – discerning what’s good from what’s bad and then using the good, and not just as the frosting, but as the basic bread – the sustenance – for her family (that’s from Rebbetzin Heller). If you’d rather have brown rice with veggies instead of the noodle kugel on Shabbes, then go for it! Silly things, sometimes, but ways of letting ourselves be supported by whatever familiar things we can. We need some soft edges. And sometimes I think we tend to put down our own ways just because they are different from the prevailing FFB culture. These ways may be strange to the mainstream kehilla, but that’s okay and to be expected (as long as we’re not flaunting our differentness and creating a sense of alienation between us all). We just shouldn’t fall into the trap of putting ourselves down for not “cutting the roast in half before we put it in the pan” (and that’s a great story!).
Live with an attitude of this is good, and that too is good, and even though we may never be totally integrated into the mainstream frum culture, our children, or our children’s children will be. Ultimately, what matters most is how we are in front of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, how we do the mitzvas and how we serve Him from this particular place that He set us up in. He knows us and He rejoices in us – in our path and in our process. We just need to remember that and live together with Him in that place of simcha.