I became a BT 24 years ago. Prior to that, I was strictly BLT.
Making the transition from BLT to BT was an adventure, filled with memories that profoundly embarrass me to this very day. After all, I didn’t know ANYTHING! I was raised in an assimilated home which spoke very little about G-d, Judaism, or anything even remotely Jewish. How I stumbled into REAL Judaism is another story, not for this post, but I will say that G-d reached out an arm and I latched on.
During my first year discovering Jewish observance, I drove to shul on Fridays and Saturdays. I would park my car blocks away and out of sight. One day, just as I was getting into my car to drive home, my rabbi walked by and saw me. He knew that I drove, how could he not? Still, I said to him, “Rabbi, I was really hoping you wouldn’t see me doing this.” My rabbi replied, serious, yet non-threatening, “What do you want me to do, hit you over the head with a stick?” That must have been a good line since I still remember it.
Then one day I received a phone call from a synagogue member who had an apartment for rent in the community. He asked me if I might be interested? I imagine he must have been shocked when I moved in the next day. Driving on Shabbos would now become no more than a faint memory of a past life. This is just one from a storehouse of retrospectives on how I found my way back to my Jewish roots. As I review the events which led up to my return, and to this very day, it isn’t hard for me to see that Hashem was leaving His business card every step of the way.
After moving into my new home in the community I recall the thrill of one day being invited to my Rabbi’s house for the first time. His father, another rabbi, was also there, a short, stout man harboring a full and neatly trimmed white beard. With a strong South African accent the father asked me, “How are you acclimating?” Too nervous to think with any clarity, I assumed he was talking about the weather, not about my new life’s direction. I told him I thought the climate in Santa Monica was outstanding.
I’m only telling you this little embarrassment in trust that you won’t repeat it to anybody. If we keep it just between you and me no one will ever have to know that it ever happened. In case you are interested, I’ll tell you what my acclimation was REALLY like. Something akin to thawing a caveman out of a block of ice and then dropping him into the house of Emily Post. I can tell you that It was difficult, and it took me a long time to adjust.
Speaking of my new and wonderful community, I would often be invited to people’s homes for Shabbos meals. A number of times, early on, I would use the bathroom of one of my hosts during Shabbos and by sheer force of habit, turn off the light on the way out. Then my reflexive actions would take over as I “quickly” flicked the light back on, hoping that no one would notice. Turning the light off was not really a difficulty since it was without thought. Turning the light back on was much more problematic because, reflexive or not, I knew what I was doing. Inculcating into myself the idea that Jewish law comes ahead of personal embarrassment was a level I had not yet attained.
We former BLTs can be very self-conscious, at least I was. In many cases, people such as myself are opening our eyes to this new and very different world for the first time in our lives. There is so much we do not understand. We don’t know the routines, people are using expressions that are totally foreign to us, and we are in constant fear of exposing ourselves as ignoramusses.
What I yearned for more than anything else was guidance. I wanted people to be sensitive to my situation, to read my mind, to stay one step ahead of me at all times and give me a heads up before I made a fool out of myself. Judaism has a lot of walls and a lot of holes, and I think I made a habit of bumping into walls and falling into holes. I needed a bunch of big brothers.
Here are a few more early recollections to give you an idea.
There was a non-kosher restaurant I used to frequent that had a weekly $3.95 steak and baked potato special…YUM! One evening, just as I was leaving my apartment for that favorite dinner of mine a friend walked over. I said hello, told him where I was going, and then I volunteered, “It may not be a kosher steak, but it’s not as bad as eating pork.”
I’ll never forget his reply, “I don’t know about that.”
Five words, and over 20 years later I’m still thinking about them. What reason did I have for believing that pork was worse than non-kosher steak? Maybe it’s worse, maybe it’s not, that’s not the point. I was making assumptions without any basis in fact to back them up. I wasn’t asking questions and I wasn’t looking for answers. I was making it up as I went along, because it felt right to me. At that moment I realized that my life up to that point had been guided by a secular outlook to the world. I knew what was right and what was wrong. I knew what was serious and what was minor. I knew because…well…I just knew, that’s all.
I was crushed by this self-revelation. I didn’t go to that restaurant that night. I missed out on my delectable steak and baked potato. In fact, as of that evening, never again, to my knowledge, have I ever eaten anything that wasn’t kosher, not at home, not with friends, not with family members…nowhere…ever!
All of this restaurant talk reminds me of the time I learned that I was supposed to have a six hour waiting period between eating meat and dairy. As I was now becoming truly observant, I would always wait six hours after eating meat before eating dairy, and I would also wait six hours after dairy before eating meat.
I did this for a year or two before learning one day that the rules for eating dairy after meat were not the same as the rules for eating meat after dairy. There is a particular reason why this discovery profoundly upset me. Why had no one realized that I was new to Jewish observance and that I needed somebody to come forward and provide me with this information? How can I ask people the appropriate questions when I don’t know what questions need to be asked?
Another example I remember which really bothered me was after tearing a paper towel one Shabbos.
“What are you doing?” someone asked me as if in shock.
“I don’t know. Aren’t I allowed to tear a paper towel?”
“NO! Not on Shabbos.”
The point is that many times we former BLTs really do not know what we are doing. We certainly don’t want to look foolish, and we absolutely need YOUR help and input. How sensitive are we, you and me, to the plight of those Jews who really need Jewish friends helping them along? That is the subject of KIRUV. Are we looking out for the genuine needs of our fellow Jews? Are we trying to be ahead of the curve, or are we simply following the curve, often after the curve has fallen off the cliff?
As I write this I realize that Pesach is almost upon us. Does not the son who doesn’t even know how to ask a question come to mind? Perhaps this year, as you read about the four sons at your Seder tables, you will give a bit of additional reflection to the plight of this child in need. I know I will, now that I have reminded myself of what it was like for me.
Eliyahu and his wife Leah run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.