Allen A. Kolber
After 15 years as a ba’al teshuva and seven years of marriage, the crisis finally came. It wasn’t over my non-frum family, which shul to daven in, whether to wear a velvet or knitted yarmulke (I had settled long ago on the black knitted compromise). No, the crisis finally came when we had to choose a school for our first born son.
Our first mistake was thinking that we would interview the schools. The reality is that the schools interview you. And, in any interview situation, the reality is that you are being judged, in a very short period of time, and relative to the other parents who are hoping to have their boy admitted in to the same yeshiva. I don’t envy any Rosh Yeshiva who has that responsibility.
My wife and I were then, as now, progressing slowly in our yiddishkeit. The truth is we did not look yeshivish, we did not look modern orthodox, we did not look chareidi, we did not look chassidishe, we looked ourselves. That is advice I always give to other ba’al teshuva, dress and act like yourself, don’t dress and act to please others. But maybe that advice did not work too well for the sake of my son when being interviewed by yeshivas.
Our first choice was a ‘yeshivish” school with strong secular studies. Most of our chevra sent their children to this school. So, when we went to be interviewed at this school, after five minutes, the Rosh Yeshiva asked us, ‘After high school, do you envision your son going to Beis Midrash or College?” We answered honestly, “Wherever he wants to go.” We had never even given a thought to whether our five-year-old boy, thirteen years from now, would be going to Beis Midrash or College. The Rosh Yeshiva then made his decision. “I think you should try school A, that will be more compatible for you.” We were stunned. School A was never even on our radar screen. It was a mixed gender school and more modern than we would ever look for. We told the Rosh Yeshiva, “School A is not even an option for us.” The Rosh Yeshiva responded, “Really, trust me, you won’t get along with the parent body in our school.” We responded, “But all our friends send their children to this school.” Clearly, the interview was over.
We were stunned. We were disappointed. We were devastated. We felt rejected. We called for a second interview and had our Rov call for a second interview. I wrote a letter and we had our Rov write a letter. Finally, I was mercifully told the truth by my friends who had children in the Yeshiva, “Did you wear a suit with a white shirt? Did you wear a hat? Did your wife wear a sheitel?”
We had messed up, big time. I had worn slacks and a blue shirt with my black sruga. My wife had covered her hair with a small hat. We had unwittingly walked into the Rosh Yeshiva’s office looking ourselves. My Rebbe put it succinctly. There are parents who are black and white oreo cookies, they appear black on the outside, but they are a bit white on the inside. And then there are parents like you, who are reverse oreo cookies, you appear white on the outside, but you are a bit black on the inside.
What bothered us most was that we had been examined, judged and sentenced within the span of five minutes. In five minutes there are only two things that a person can judge you on, your outward appearance and the few comments you are able to make during that brief conversation.
As we walked out of the yeshiva, my wife commented to me, “He’s right and he’s wrong. He’s right in that this yeshiva is too yeshivish for us. We don’t conform. He is wrong because he tried to sum up our hashkafa during a five minute interview and got it totally wrong.”
Looking back on the situation, I have learned two important lessons. The first lesson is that I was inadvertently attempting to legitimize my own frumkeit through my children. Maybe I thought on some subconscious level that if my son wore a big velvet yarmulke and payos behind his ears that people in my community would accept me as a legitimately religious Jew. On the other hand, I felt if my son wore a knitted yarmulke with a Mets logo that, by projection, others would refuse to view me as a serious religious Jew.
The second thing I learned was a lesson in equanimity, and by extension, to trust in the hashgacha that Hakadosh Baruch Hu has in my family’s life. The definition of equanimity is “steadiness of mind under stress”, the ability to accept a situation with composure. When faced with success on the one hand or challenges on the other, we should not react with inordinate ecstasy or inordinate disappointment. We should always understand that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is directing this moment in our lives toward a goal which we may or may not be able to see at this time. When I walked out of that school I was disappointed but I should have had more faith in G-d to know that this disappointment was merely one step toward His plan for our children’s education.
The other night, my wife and I went to parent – teacher conferences at our son’s yeshiva (neither the first Yeshiva nor School A). We stood in the hall with the other parents waiting to meet with our son’s Rebbe. My wife’s hair was uncovered, her sleeves and skirt long, the way she always dresses at this point in our life. I pushed my payos behind my ears and adjusted my black knitted yarmulke. I looked at the other parents. A man in a black suit with a black hat. A man in jeans with a beard and velvet yarmulke. A woman with a sheitel and funky boots. I looked at the pictures of the boys on the walls outside the classroom. My own son, with his small velvet yarmulke and payos behind his ears. His friend, J., with a big black velvet yarmulke. His friend, M., with a kippa sruga with an Israeli flag on it. Everybody seemed to be themselves and everyone seemed to be happy.