It had been a somewhat emotionally, rhetorically exhausting couple of weeks for active BT bloggers. Or, at least, for this one. Let me explain it this way: I’m a member of a little chevra who email each other on a weekly basis talking about what they’re doing in terms of outreach. (Yeah, an Aish thing. I know.) Not usually having much to say, I finally cooked up a corker of an email talking about my Jewish blogging work of late. It ended with this paragraph:
This is time-consuming work, and I doubt that I will be able to keep up with all the mischief. It is also very depressing, and tremendously challenging; I am not a kiruv professional, after all. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have over 20 years of being frum and learning in my pocket and thank God a good bit of dialectical and analytical skill. It’s really important to balance this sort of swim in the muck with a healthy dose of Jewish family life, davening and learning — because it does not provide the kind of feel-good chizuk you get from a Partners in Torah chavrusa or the like. I sincerely welcome any sort of suggestions or support . . .
Well, how nice for me. In fact, I didn’t get any “suggestions or support” from the group. No one responded to my email. In fact, a few people on the email list whom I met within the next week told me I was probably wasting my time. They thought getting the email addresses of strangers on airplanes and secretaries’ Jewish boyfriends was a better use of effort. Maybe they’re right. It’s hard to tell if anyone’s listening, especially when people you think perhaps are listening the hardest — the intense, brilliant, conflicted friend who introduced me to this blog, for instance, and who recently announced a jump off the deep end of frumkeit — are not moved at all.
Thank God for Shabbos.
Shortly before Shabbos we got a call from the new Aish yeshiva that opened a few blocks from my house. Could I help shore up the minyan erev Shabbos? I have never davened there. I… don’t like BT davening, okay? I worked hard for years so that I could sit at the adults’ table. I now pass for a lifer wherever I go, and I traverse the Internet with my “brilliant,” purple-tinged encomia to and defense of frum life, a self-appointed dean of orthodox Internet polemics. But of course I couldn’t say no; there was a need and I was duty-bound to do what I could to meet it. (My eighth grade son begged off.)
I got there and my heart sank. It was exactly what I thought I’d left behind. Gosh, have kids forgotten how to put on a coat and tie since the mid-80’s? These haircuts! Where do you even get a hat like that?!
But little by little I melted. It just started to feel right. They asked me to daven kabbolos Shabbos, and — for Heaven’s sake, yes! — in no time at all there they were, dancing in a circle! Dancing in a circle! I would have run for the door if I were in their place — but they didn’t! They were so enthusiastic! No one was making them do it. It was spontaneous excitement, and dancing was something they knew how to do. They were young, they were full of, yes, spiritual energy. They had gotten here themselves, they could walk out any time they wanted, but they were spending Shabbos here, and I was at the front of the room leading them.
All the nasty remarks, the cynicism, the blackness of the Internet attacks and the angry emailing; all my coiled up responses, triangulations, rationalizations — this is what it really is: People who want joy in their lives, want to get closer to Hashem, want to be better people. They are not interested, not today, in the anger and bitterness of those who have left this behind and are aghast that others could find it satisfying… the politics of frum institutions, and not so frum ones… the battles of virtual egos in the ether… the hunger for scandal, hypocrisy and failure. And I am not merely pointing fingers at other people’s “bitter” blogs. I generate plenty of this myself. What percentage of my contributions here is angry, disappointed, cynical? How have I gone from enthusiastic beginner, to perfectly presentable professional BT, to scowling, tired old cynic? Is that progress?
These young guys were pounding the table with excitement and joy and love because with the help of Aish HaTorah they were getting the chance to reconnect with something good they knew was in them and that they wanted passionately to let out and to live. They may have had disappointments ahead, clashes with reality, dashed expectations, broken hearts. But that’s not about becoming frum. That’s about life. But a life with all these things, yet with meaning, and hope, and spirit, and a relationship with one’s Maker — that’s a life, with all its reversals, that is worth living.
In fact, the one thing I got right in my email was that it is all hopeless — all the blogging, all the crossed pens, all the melodrama — if you can’t or won’t log off and live a real brick-and-mortar Jewish life. Living it in the moment, turning off the hyperspace drive, taking in what Hashem has given to me, is in fact my hardest challenge.
And sometimes I try so hard to write something special, something by which I hope certain readers will be touched and affected. Yet from time to time the work and the strain and the artifice show through in the piece, all too readily. I want those people to cry when they read it, but that does not work.
It only works if you cry when you write it.