On Being Yourself

A year ago, I was at the wedding of two of my friends. At the Shabbas Kallah the bride went around and said something nice about everyone in the room. Since it was a year ago, I can’t remember her exact words, but she said something like this: “Rachel, your passion for learning is an inspiration to me.”

Now back then I wasn’t trying to pretend to the world that I had tons of emunah and really was dedicated to Judaism. During my freshman and sophomore years I believed myself that I had all this spirituality, that I was doing what G-d wanted, etc. But at that moment, I realized that I was somewhat of a phony. Everyone thought that I was spiritual, but my faith had already been tested by then, and I started having more and more trouble with serving G-d.

So we’re encouraged to dress frum (whatever that means) even if we don’t feel that way yet, because our actions should lead our intentions in the right direction. And actions are more important anyways.

But what if that frum feeling never comes? And what if others start believing in you, and they think that you’re some wonderful talmid hacham, or eishes chayil, and they’re inspired by you? Should you let them know that really you have all these doubts and that you’re working on your own emunah? Or do you let them use you as a role model, so they have something to strive for?

I think there is something to be said for being yourself. The more that you try to pretend that you’re something you’re not, the more it eats away at you. Slowly but surely it becomes harder to play that role.

Sure, everyone will compliment you, but you start to realize that they’re not really complimenting /you/, they’re complimenting a mistaken idea of you that they have in their heads.

So I’ve started being myself again. It was hard at first, and it took a lot of courage, but people are a lot more accepting than you might think, if they’re truly your friends and want what’s best for you. And I’m so much happier being myself.

So wear the jeans, the wedding band, the kippah srugah, the colors, the flowy skirt, the nose piercing, if that’s who you think you are. If you think you’re a black hatter, wear the back hat and the velvet kippah. Wear the strimel and the bekishe. Wear the sheitl, or the hat, or the tichel. Wear the long socks. But I would strongly argue against doing something just because it’s the norms of your community and you want to fit in. It only harms you in the long run. And I bet that you can find a community who accepts you for who you are. It’s definitely worth searching for.

18 comments on “On Being Yourself

  1. Hmmm, I don’t remember what compliment was bestowed on me at that wedding. Probably something in regards to my bookshelf in the dining room that has the books Torah Studies with the Rebbe and America by Jon Stewart side by side to help illustrate my strong belief in Torah U’Madda. Good times!

  2. Ora, #13 could have been a post in and of itself – perhaps you could elaborate on it and post it! Thanks for the great interpretation of tefillah, which remains after 25 or so years, my achilles heel.

  3. Ora (post #13) nailed it.

    Thinking that my current persona is the real me doesn’t exactly push me to improve.

  4. Rachel,
    You already know how I feel about this, so I won’t bother writing it out here. However, thanks for posting. :>)

    B’ahavat Yisrael,

  5. Rachel,
    What an amazing post. While it’s rather easy for BTs to blend in externally within a frum community, there is a cost, at times, to doing it too quickly. At times how are look is not exactly who we are. In truth, that’s not always a bad thing as long as we are heading in a direction of Avodas Hashem (service of our creator).

  6. Rachel, excellent post.

    I definitely agree with LC (9)–I’ve managed to inspire people the most with stories of the many things that I’ve done wrong, and not what I managed to do right. When people have the impression that everyone around them manages to completely accept Torah and do all of the mitzvot with ease, then they’ll usually just feel alone and frustrated/down on themselves. Knowing that others have gone or are going through philisophical/practical struggles as well is actually quite comforting.

    The one thing I disagree with in this post (unless I’m imagining it) is the implied distinction between “being yourself” and being an eshet chayil/ talmid hacham/ what have you. I think it’s important to remember that, when we have struggles, it’s not necessarily our “real self” having difficulties. This is hard for me to explain, so I’ll try an example:

    I have trouble with davvening. There are two ways to approach my problem:
    1) “Real Ora” has trouble davvening, she doesn’t particularly like to, but she forces herself to do it anyway. People might see this and get the impression that she has amazing kavana, but that’s “fake Ora,” they don’t really know her.
    2) “Real Ora” is the part of Ora, however deep it may be buried, that enjoys davvening and wants to connect to Hashem in every possible way. If there are days when her laziness/ exhaustion/ extremely addled brain prevent her from davvening, or from doing it with any semblence of kavana, that’s not the “real Ora,” it’s just externals getting in the way of the real Ora.

    Basically, the “real you” is an eshet chayil, and a tzaddik, and all of that good stuff. Of course, the outer you might need some time to internalize things, and even sometimes to drop certain aspects of observance for a while, because that’s just how it goes. But “real you” will always be the part striving for more closeness with Hashem, in her own unique way.

    (another attempt to write a short, to-the-point reply instead of a long, rambling, insomniac reply ends in failure. no more late-night internet for me :( ).

  7. Even though I basically agree with the idea that a person still growing should be honest with where s/he is holding, I would like to put in a plug that the reason for this is not because it “feels comfortable” but because it is doing the right thing. The right thing for a newcomer might be to assimilate the internal before changing the external, but that is because real teshuva is one step at a time, not a pose. It is not the right thing just because it’s comfortable. Comfort is not a goal in Judaism; we are exhorted to go beyond our comfort level in all areas eg doing that chessed that is difficult, davening even if we don’t feel like it, etc. We should always strive to be a little “uncomfortable” or else we are not growing.

    Which means, a person like Rachel who is obviously growing and struggling, should be real with where she is holding, and dress to reflect that, but try to do one small thing that stretches her a little in this area.

  8. Rachel, great post. I moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 19. I was newly chozer betshuva, enthusiastic, opinionated and fairly extremist. I tried to “dress frum” and adhere to stricter opinions regarding tzniut. I found myself amongst a lot of 20 and 30somethings who often found my conviction amusing and teased me by calling me by my english name and watching me get mad. The burden of “looking frum” became heavier as that baal teshuva high peaked, plateaued and declined…everything turned out okay (a longer story), but I made things more difficult for myself by aggressively projecting a frum image without doing the inner work first.

  9. rachel,

    excellent. going through/went through the same issues(albeit from a man’s perspective, so wearing a skirt looks way too silly). As my brother rafi says – outside of specific exception communities, be yourself. you cannot grow unless you have a true starting point! If the foundation is false, so is the building. In parshat re’eh it says “Banim atem la’hashem”. You are all children of god. unfortunately some people get so caught up in the external trappings and “keeping up with the joneses” that they forget there were 12 tribes – not one!

  10. To address a different aspect of the post:
    But what if that frum feeling never comes? And what if others start believing in you, and they think that you’re some wonderful talmid hacham, or eishes chayil, and they’re inspired by you? Should you let them know that really you have all these doubts and that you’re working on your own emunah? Or do you let them use you as a role model, so they have something to strive for?

    Why shouldn’t you be an inspiration for someone else in any case? The definition of ‘talmid chacham’ or ‘eishes chayil’ shouldn’t have any basis in your dress, but your behavior.

    And if someone can be motivated in any (positive) way by what you have accomplished, so great! And you never know; for some, being told that *you’re* still struggling with ‘feeling frum’, or ‘believing in Gd’, or whatever your specific issues are, may be an inspiration.

    I have definitely met people who were convinced that I’m an FFB, and were encouraged by the fact that I’m not – it means that my lifestyle and comfort level *are* attainable by a BT. And some on the path are encouraged to know they aren’t the only ones still searching while they begin to act in accordance with halacha.

  11. Rachel, I’d add that the best community isn’t the one that looks the frummest. Its the one whose Rav (or some other tzaddik!) is teaching those who are interested to develop the most, perfect their character their most. There aren’t many who can do this.

    To some extent we always look over our shoulder and compare ourselves to others. But unless we are being honest with ourselves and have a good mentor then any attempt to copy a certain madrega without contemplating if we are ready for it may leave us vulnerable for a setback as you have found.

    Yes, Judaism is on the surface all about actions, halacha and what we do, but as gedolim such as Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt’l explain, what really is cherished is what we think and our attitudes behind whatever we do or experience.

    At the end of the following link by Rav Shalom Arush, is a great story of 2 brothers one observant and one not, emphasising what kind of growth Hashem really wants:


  12. Excellent post. I have to disagree with Ed’s comment and agree wholeheartedly with Rachel’s post… During my second year in Israel, I made a mistake and switched schools to a supposedly “better” “frummer” school. Suffice it to say that it was a terrible situation, and after 5 months I finally switched back… but it was what a couple of people told me that made it incredibly easier.

    My sister said to me over the phone: “Do what’s good for you. We’re not going to think ‘badly’ of you for going back. You need to do whatever you need to do.”

    My cousin, who in his 40’s is a charedi Rosh Yeshiva in Israel, sat me down with him and his wife and they said simply: “You’re not happy. Last year, in your old yeshiva, you were much happier. Who cares where you are – you need to be happy or it all doesn’t matter.”

    Those were two of the moments in which I finally learned to be myself. [And of course, now I have a great header. :) ]

    And David L – this is part of the post I still plan on writing one day. :)

  13. Rachel I commend you on being yourself. People like you are few and far between. I grew up in an orthodox household but it was a modern one. I had my “rebellious” years in highschool but later decided to become frummer. Becoming frum doesn’t happen overnight, there are steps. I think the last step for me was modest dress. At first I did it all at once. Then, I went back to pants. I wouldn’t wear shorts or tank tops anymore, that was a step..But I wore pants, capris, and shortsleeves. It didn’t take much longer for that to go. But, I obviously wasn’t ready yet, and that’s okay. So there I was a shomer negiyah 18 year old with my cartilage pierced and my capris :)

  14. Rachel, thanks for making very significant points about the growth process. As Shayna wrote way back when, after awhile you begin to “think frum”. The focus of your post is more on the external, an area where far too many people are getting hung up on, as we can attest here by the number of comments to David Kirschner’s “Looking Good”. A neshoma can grow even inside a body that doesn’t look the same as the rest of the community’s – but the reverse is not necessarily true.
    So therefore, as I hear people say around my office, “You go, girl!”

  15. Rachel – you could not have said it better. Unkess someone is living in a closed community of sorts, like Kiryas Yoel or various places in Israel that have official rules and acceptance committees, no community can or should disc tate what is acceptable within its borders. No community owns its neighborhood and you can and should dress and act as you want and feel appropriate. The extension of it is that just like you feel the need to dress a certain way, you should find a community that meets your style. It is just as important.
    But if you want to live in a specific neighborhood fo whatever reason and dress differently than most, because you are not yet ready to change that aspect, you should feel empowered to dress the way you want and grow a your own pace.
    Baalei teshuiva need to become part of communities, but it needs to be integrated at a rate that helps them to grow and not hinder their growth engendering bad feelings and resentment. The community will recognize you as being sincere and will help you continue to grow further.

  16. Couldn’t disagree with you more.

    If one isn’t willing to be consistent with communal norms – find a new community that is a better fit. And a “better fit” is NOT “finding a community who accepts you for who you are.” To the contrary, it is finding a community in which complacency is discouraged, and growth as a religious Jew is encouraged.

    Necessarily, when one does teshuva, he/she cannot simply “be yourself” – especially if being yourself incorporates some of the aspects you mention. Judaism is a communal religion – and it is essential to be a part of a kehilla. Granted, this doesn’t mean subverting one’s individuality entirely. But it is essential for any BT to conform to communal norms if he/she hopes to succeed.

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