“Where do you study?” asked the shaddchun.
“Yeshivas Ohr Yaakov,” I answered, “and before that I learned at Ohr Somayach.”
“And before that?” she asked.
“University of California,” I said.
“And before that?” she persisted.
Before that? “Uh, high school.”
“Yes,” she said patiently. “Which high school?”
Was she kidding? “Harvard School, in North Hollywood, California.”
“Is that a Jewish school?”
This was too much. “Actually, it’s Episcopalian.”
Her head snapped up, her eyes bugged out, and she gasped, “Are you a ger?”
I couldn’t help laughing. “No, just an assimilated Jew who’s done tshuva.” My answer didn’t seem to register at all.
“Well, no one needs to know about that,” she said, violently scratching out the damning information she had written on her note pad.
She suggested one shidduch, a girl with whom I had so little in common that we ended our only date by mutual consent after 20 minutes.
Nearly a decade later, I sat with a Torah U’Mesorah representative for my first interview entering the world of chinuch. I felt as if I were back on a shidduch date.
“So how’s your Hebrew?” the rabbi asked.
“Conversationally, not so great, but in learning I hold my own.”
He nodded, then said, “I’ve found that most ba’alei tshuva sound like they’re speaking Chinese when they try to speak Hebrew.”
“Well, I’m gabbai of my shul, and I daven for the Yomim Noroyim.”
He nodded again, then said, “So your Hebrew’s not so good.” It was a statement this time, not a question.
I’m mildly amused now by the anxiety I once felt over my inability to pass. But there are two sides to every story. Upon interviewing for my second teaching job, the principal confided that, “your resume was spellbinding; it read like an adventure novel.” I suppose most American FFBs can’t claim attendance at the University of California, the University of London, the University of Edinburgh, and travel across four continents. I got the job.
And more surprises awaited. Teaching in a school with less than a third frum kids, my fellow rebbes found themselves frequently faced with students claiming, “you don’t know what it’s like for us — you never experienced the secular world so you can’t understand what we’re going through.”
I couldn’t help teasing my colleagues: “You FFBs, nebuch, just can’t relate to these kids.”
Inevitably, everything comes full circle. A couple of years after moving to St. Louis, I published an essay in the local Jewish paper describing my childhood experience with a Chanukah menorah on one side of the room and an Xmas tree beside the fireplace on the other. The next morning one of the other rebbes pulled me aside and whispered urgently, “You have to speak to your students.”
“About what?” I asked, mystified.
“About your essay,” he replied.
“What does it have to do with my students?”
“They’re shocked. They didn’t know you’re a ba’al tshuva!”