A Baal Teshuva’s Father’s Daughter’s Perspectives

Last week we had a wonderful post by Mr. David Shub, in which he shared his perspectives as a Baal Teshuva’s father. We also had the benefit of Rabbi Yaakov Menken sharing some of his insights on this subject.

Today we have the pleasure of hearing from Yael, the daughter of Mr. Shub as she shares her thoughts on the subject of Parent – Baal Teshuva relationships.

By “Yael Shub”

I don’t generally write postings espousing my philosophy on life, but since my father’s recent posting received such a positive response, I figured I would take the opportunity to share some quick thoughts I have developed over the last 20 years.

1. Challenging relationships before teshuva remain at least as challenging after teshuva. Power conflicts, value systems, and conflicting personalities will often be exacerbated with the adoption of a completely foreign lifestyle. I believe these types of relationships are not about teshuva and real, perhaps professional, work, needs to be done to heal. Consider whether placing the blame on frumkeit is perhaps misplaced blame.

2. I assume Rabbi Menken is addressing families where the parent-child relationship has historically been more functional than not. In this case, I believe it is crucial to try to understand the other point of view and to realize how shocking your adoption of a new lifestyle can be. I believe it is necessary to express to your family how much you want to remain part of the family. Sure, we can’t eat in our parents’ kitchen, but tell your parents how much it pains you to eat separately. Be honest. Tell them that you would love to join them for dinner or at a restaurant or at a Saturday afternoon at the beach but you simply can’t. They might not understand the “can’t” part and yes, it may lead to a discussion of you valuing religion over family. This may be an inevitable discussion, but do as much as possible to express and show them that you still love, value and wish to remain close to them. When the time is right, you should sit down together to find creative ways to share your life with them. The beach might be out, but find other avenues for quality family time.

3. Parents often view the adoption of a new lifestyle as a rejection of their values and a rejection of all the years of parenting that they invested. Indeed, it is normal for them to go through a process of “mourning”. New baalei teshuva should try to recognize the loss that their parents are experiencing. Certain family traditions that parents may subconsciously assume will be passed down are destined to end: summers at the beach, Sunday dinner at a favorite restaurant, Saturday matinees. Each family has its own culture and traditions. Adoption of a new lifestyle, undermines all those hopes and dreams. The change of cultural norms can be scary, intimidating and, yes, on some level it represent a loss of power. It is incumbent on baalei teshuva to highlight to their parents those areas of their life that they have not rejected. Show them how much you truly gained from them and those aspects of your behavior, values, strengths and accomplishments you have developed as a result of what they gave to you.

Back in the early years, my parents often told me that they raised me to be a liberal, open, independent thinker, a girl who would grow into a woman who could accomplish anything. My mother used to tell me that every door was open to me. I could become the first female president of the US if I wanted. To suddenly see this daughter behind a mechitza can be very disturbing. As my Dad mentioned in his post, it is an issue he is still grappling with despite all his adaptation, adoption and understanding. Over the years, I have repeatedly told my parents that it was their influence and encouragement to explore, think, and be independent that lead me to frumkeit at such a young age. It was the (and I wish I knew what they did so I could impart it to my own children) self esteem that they imbued within me that gave me the strength as a young teen to go against my friends and adopt a life that was so different than all my peers and classmates. Self esteem is so necessary in so many areas of life not the least of which is managing a busy household while juggling all the responsibilities of a frum lifestyle as mentioned in previous posts.

Individuals will have their own “mesorah” of what they inherited from their parents. As we move through different stages of our lives we will often come to recognize more and more of what our parents gave to us. How often do I look at the experiences I seek to offer my children and realize it was those same experiences that my parents gave to me? So whether it is a love of music, the outdoors, hiking, cooking, or model train building realize that it is your parents you need to thank. Showing your parents that you have maintained aspects of their ‘mesorah’ has the power to bridge gaps of understanding and build healthy relationships between generations.

In summation, when mentoring others perhaps it would be helpful to help young BTs explore themselves. Once a person understands herself, she can be better equipped to express herself to her family and share with them common life experiences.

4) Maintain a sense of humor. I believe humor can save you many times in so many different relationships. Relax. Be able to laugh at oneself and one’s situation. When I was about 16 I read Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s book entitled Teshuva. His words had a profound impact on me. Here is my all time favorite quote (p.51) :

“…one must learn to smile. It is not advisable to do everything grimly and fearfully, some things can be taken more lightly and in many contexts cheerfulness is permissible. It is not only a matter of avoiding sadness which the sages considered the worst of sins, but of keeping a sense of proportion, saving ones seriousness and grim determination for situations where they are needed. Judaism presents a particularly difficult spiritual challenge, for it asks us to live a life of holiness, not in monastic seclusion, but out in the world. It is a challenge that calls for balance and a sense of humor.”

5. Finally, to ensure a smooth transition, I would suggest getting an older sibling to go through the process before you. Let them be the guinea pig and smooth the way. Hey, when my younger brother became frum, he had it sooo easy :-)

20 comments on “A Baal Teshuva’s Father’s Daughter’s Perspectives

  1. BOTH father & daughter are to be commended for their sensitivities and mutual respect. That’s the way a family should be.

    After 30 years as a BT, it is only NOW that my mother appreciates our lifestyle & I was raised in a very traditional household. For many years, she gave me a hard time, “do you have to be SO strict, just this once can’t you…,etc.”. She finally sees the benefit and value of a Torah education/lifestyle now that the grandchildren are adults & have started to leave the nest and get married (or not). She is disappointed with some of the choices her other grandchildren are making. They are nice kids, but their religion is that of pop culture, not of Torah values. I have been told by several family members that our lifestyle makes them uncomfortable because they feel judged. Nothing could be further from the truth. I chalk it up to Jewish guilt.

    It’s ironic that with all the talk of “tolerance” these days, so many are intolerant of those who wish to lead a more observant Jewish life.

    Kol hakavod on another great topic.

  2. Excellent, excellent post! With your permission, I’d like to link to it, as well as your father’s, from a kiruv website I run with my husband.

  3. I’m glad you mentioned the importance of a sense of humor… I think that may be more important than almost anything. A well-timed joke or even a smile can set minds at ease when things get difficult, because it tells the people you love “hey, I’m on your side here. I’m still the person you love” – and it shows that you get the absurdity of someone they know turning into someone they don’t recognize as easily.

    While I don’t really characterize myself as a BT (my family are very religious Conservative, so my becoming more observant was more like going from 65 mph to 80, not from a bike to a car), we used to have an ongoing joke in our family whenever I said or did anything that they felt was a sign of things changing too much or too fast. Someone (sometimes me) would catch the mood in the room and say, in the deepest yiddish accent possible, “Ach. I wouldn’t even drink the water in that place! Treif treif treif!” And roll our eyes till you could almost hear them bounce. ;)

    The comedian George Carlin had a routine about driving where he said that everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and everyone who drives faster is a jerk (well, he didn’t say jerk, it was unprintable, but you get the picture). I think halachic observance can be like that for a lot of Jews. Anyone who is more observant than you is a crazy fanatic, and anyone who is less observant is an apikoros. :) Realizing that you too are on that sliding scale compared to other people – that you have to have perspective that we’re all on a road and you have to be patient with the other drivers – is when having a sense of humor comes in handy the most. Because who knows if there are all sorts of other people “ahead” of you bearing with you. Eeeek!

    Great post!

  4. I’ve heard it said in the name of Rav Shach that baalei t’shuvah men should get married early on. On one hand I can easily imagine some problems that might cause (and Rav Shach certainly meant that each case has to be examined on it’s own). One the other hand, aside from the obvious physical drive issue, perhaps it is more healthful phsycologically for a man to go through the process with a wife. It might keep him more rooted and in touch.

  5. Michoel and Rachel A.-

    It’s no accident that Kiruv Centers and programs attract more women than men. (Although this demographic imbalance adds more “fat to the fire” of the pan-Orthodox shidduch crisis). On a cosmic-metaphysical level Rav Tsadok writes that women are more central to the Tikkun process than are men. This is why it was the Imahos (Sorah and Rivkah) who sifted the negative spirituality out of the household of the Avos rather than the Avos themselves. Also IMO the very spiritual posture of T’shuva demands getting in touch with our feminine sides. To engage in the T’shuva process one must be a mekabel Tochachah (willing accept-or of reproof) and a nurturer of the staggering Oros (spiritual lights) that HaShem pours into the vessel of the BTs soul.

    On a psychosocial level women tend to be more commitment and parenting oriented than men. T’shuva demands commitment and a certain end to caprice and flightiness. Like the innate need to parent (verb) it is also informed by a drive to create something productive and eternal that will outlive our temporal existences. Maybe it’s part of the Peter Pan syndrome that society seems to aid and abet but men seem content to be unsettled till much older ages than women.

    One of the essential rules of good writing is “write about what you know-write about what you live”. Since all that I’ve described are feminine characteristics IMO it’s know great mystery why the ladies’ post and comments on BeyondBT pack such a wallop. Living and feeling T’shuva more deeply they have a more intimate knowledge of the subject and can write about it more convincingly and with more sensitivity.

  6. I think that part of the answer is just the good mazal to have good females writers. I’m tending to think that given the parameters of tznius, men do not hear the voices of women that much. They are supposed to hear their wife’s views but since we live in times thay are extremely hectic, maybe couples don’t have the time of presence of mind to really hear the other (aside from “Honey, please remeber to buy more diapers” and things like that). Therefore, a woman’s perspecitive sounds very original. Women, on the other hand, hear the men’s perspective in shiurim etc. I think that men being the primary public voice of Torah is a very good thing and the way Hashem intended it but I do think that people need to slow down and listen more.

    Also, and I heard this from shadchanim years ago, women might tend to stay closer to their true selves in the process of t’shuvah where as men might tend to get more disorientated. There are reasons for that but not for now.

  7. Michoel-

    My guess is that we’re used to hearing male perspectives on Judaism. All halachic literature, most mussar literature, and most explanations of the Torah [the latter 2 at least until recently] have been written by men. The “women’s experience” is not the norm, and sometimes we take for granted that everyone thinks and feels the same way as us.

    Living a Torah-observant life as a woman, especially a BT woman, is very different from living a Torah-observant life as a man. There are many issues [deemed “women’s issues”] that come up because of a woman’s lack of obligation in specific mitzvot, and because of the role that she is supposed to fulfill.

    At least for me, many of the issues that I’m having in my teshuva would not be so relevant if I were male. I think the transition to frumkeit might be harder for women in general, although I obviously can’t know that for a fact.

    Therefore, us women may be offering a unique perspective here. I don’t know why my posts in particular draw so many comments; perhaps it is because I am a more liberal Jew than the vast majority of people here on the site, and therefore a lot of you tend to disagree with me.

    Or maybe we’re all just good writers. :)

  8. On family mesorahs:

    My FIL is an american Yeshiva-man. His son my BIL married into a Chasidic family and now lives on Betar. When he sent his oldest to Yeshiva K’tana(= Mesivta High School) the boy discovered that he was the only one in his class of recent bar-mitzvahs wrapping his T’filin nusach ashkenaz. Feeling the peer group heat he asked his dad for permission to change to s’fard. My BIL told him “It’s not my minhag to change. You’ll have to call Zaidy in America to ask permission.” The boy explained the dilemma to his grandfather. Here’s waht my FIL told his grandson: “If you want to keep MY minhag switch from your father’s minhag and start wrapping them s’fard. My father z”l wrapped them s’fard. After I was in Mesivta for about a year and a half I switched to Ashkenaz!”

  9. This is a serious question, not intended to be patronizing or funny: Does anyone have a thought as to why the most interesting and comment inspiring writing in this blog’s short existence has been written by women? I have a thought but I’d like to hear someone elses thoughts.

  10. Thanks for the great post.

    What I found interesting is that even where there is such deep respect and understanding there still seems to be an underlying tension. The BT wishes that his/her parents would join them in their observance. While the parents wish the BT didn’t have to be so frum.
    The goal seems to be to minimize the manifestations of this, but the tension still remains.

  11. Regarding Yael’s paragraph 1. above: I would just add that the frumkeit can actually end up clouding the underlying issues. It is therefore particullary important for those with complicated family situations to go very slow on the chitzonius. When one has anger toward their family, there can be such a strong (yet subtle) yetzer to clobber one’s family with their long skirts or black hats. This was all mentioned in previous threads but I feel it is worth reiterating.

  12. Yael,
    Very insightful. It is quite clear that you “get it”. Your parents really did bring you up quite well. It takes a person with a wholesome sense of self, to be able to feel so fully as you do, the perpective of your parents. Despite their real pain, I have no doubt that they are quite proud of the very real person they helped nurture.

  13. Shmuel, thank you for the compliment.

    No, I don’t write for a living. I am actually a stay- at-home mom. I consider whatever writing skills I have as part of the “mesorah” I received from my Dad who is an English teacher

  14. This is a very insightful piece. I particularly like the point about realizing that your parents have their own “mesorah” that they feel/fear their BT child will be abandoning. This seemingly simple understanding accomplishes so much of what is necessary in BT-Parent relationships:

    1. It shows respect and honor for your parents.

    2. It shows your parents that you are still “normal”.

    3. It shows your parents that you appreciate them and what is important to them.

    4. It shows your parent that you are willing to take the time to do (and enjoy!) those “family” things.

    5. It shows that, after all, you are all still one family.

    It is clear why you and your father have such a healthy relationship. To use a belated tu b’shvat analogy “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

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