The BT journey is a humbling one. On the one hand, you become convinced that Hashem did write the Torah, and he chose YOU and your family to carry out its mission. You come to feel that G-d does care what goes into your mouth, what is spoken by your tongue, and even, whether or not you fast on Yom Kippur. But just in case you start feeling too arrogant, there’s nothing like the embarrassment of not being able to help your kindergartner with homework to bring you right down to size.
Along the journey of the past ten years there have been thousands of moments when I have felt just plain stupid. When I didn’t know the words to pray, or that I should be standing up when I prayed them. When I sewed up all the slits on my long skirts in an inspired, momentary, desire to dress frum enough for my black-hat, wigged, shul, only to realize after the fact that those slits are put into these skirts for a reason! When I’ve asked a question of my Rav, only to reveal how little I really knew about the subject at hand, as he asked probing questions. Oh, the list goes on and on. But no list of embarrassing moments reads as long as the itemization of each and every time that my ineptitude in Hebrew made it impossible for me to assist my children in school, or the way I want to slink down into my seat when I attend “meet the teacher night” and I can’t really understand what the Hebrew teacher is giving over.
As we now school the children in Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion in Piscataway, NJ, half the student body is frum from birth with parents the same, and the other half are like my kids – their parents may be BT’s, but these kids are already fluent in Rashi and able to converse in Hebrew at the Shabbos table. We parents all look the part, as if we’ve been observant for generations, but some of us are trying to learn a few choice Hebrew words we can slide into the conversation so that our lack of learning isn’t plastered all over our foreheads like a billboard. A few Yiddish words, interspersed with a few of the more common Hebrew expressions bantered about, and hopefully, we’ll “pass.”
Until one of my children, maybe aged 11-years old, comes crying to me and says, “Mom, I don’t understand my homework!”. Or I go to shul on a Shabbos that has something different about it, and I’m lost in the service, flipping the pages of my siddur back and forth and trying to figure out where I am, and where the rest of the community is. And then, despite all of my learning, and commitment, and ongoing efforts to make up for my lack of yeshiva education, I am red-faced again, experiencing what I now call one of those “BT moments!”
I’ll share with you how deep this insecurity can run sometimes. I was a professional speaker for a Gateways seminar, and was both delighted and nervous to be receiving this honor. I had recently published my book, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home?” and I was there to help other BT’s deal with family issues that have arisen because of increased observance. It was candle lighting time, and perhaps fifty women were standing in front of a large table of tea lights, ready to light. I couldn’t get my tea light to light. No matter how hard I tried, the flame would not ignite the wick. Meanwhile, ladies were waiting behind me for their opportunity. In a flash, I experienced one of those “BT moments”. It went something like this in my head: “Here I am, such a stupid BT, I don’t even know how to light one of these stupid candles. I bet this never happens to FFB’s!”
Now of course, this kind of self-talk is crazy. My problem was with my candle, not my technique, or my lack of learning. It was just a bad habit, for me to sink into momentary despair at my stupidity.
I’d like to tell you that these moments don’t happen for me anymore. But that would be a lie. They still happen frequently, but when they do, I try to snap myself out of them quicker. If I sink into despair, I refocus my attention either, away completely from the topic, or, I make myself think of something I have accomplished, rather than what I have not, or, never will, accomplish.
I will never learn enough Hebrew to keep up with my kids. Thank G-d. We have sacrificed so much, my husband and I, so that our kids will far surpass us in their Jewish learning. My husband takes great pride in the fact that our 9-year old son is starting to give him a run for his money. My kids know that Mom can’t help them with their Hebrew homework, but they also know that she puts out a beautiful Shabbos table, that people in the community think of her as a woman who does chesed, and that she really lives by her firm commitment not to speak loshon hora. I know they are embarrassed by me sometimes. But really, what kid isn’t embarrassed by a parent from time to time? I should be rejoicing that their embarrassment is because of my lack of Hebrew background, rather than raising a household of kids who could care less.
When I cry, and I do, in those moments when I feel just too stupid to pull off this journey and do it well, this is what I believe I must think. How wonderful that I am in a place in my life where those tears arise, when I can cry about what I do not know, rather than being in a place where I have not a clue what it is that I am missing. There was a time I never shed a tear about what I’ve missed out in my Hebrew learning. That’s far sadder than all the times I now cry because for me, it really is too late to catch up. Yes, I know, Rabbi Akiva didn’t start till age 40. Yes, I know, theoretically, it’s never too late. But it is, for me, too late for some things. I’m too old to have another baby. I’m too fat to fit into sized-eight clothes. My bunions hurt too much now for me to walk ten miles. I’m not going to learn Rashi, and my kids have learned to ask their friends and teachers for help with homework. I can’t do it all, and some of it, I can’t do very well.
And so be it. Because I’m on the journey, and so are my kids, and maybe I’m bumbling along this road some times, but bottom line, I’m
ON THE ROAD. And really, I hope, that’s what matters.
Cry with me sometimes, and laugh with me. At least we are on this