First you Think in Secular and Translate for Yourself; Eventually you Begin to Think in Frum

I spent the first 25 years of my life big into non-conformity. I prided myself on digging hipper music than my high school friends, choosing a trendy college too cool for grades, eating vegetarian, camping through the USSR before glastnost, living in the East Village, and on and on.

Becoming a B.T. was the ultimate in non-conformity. One friend (now a prominent psychiatrist) tried to de-program me. Maybe I was a Ms Magazine subscriber but I couldn’t shake off that pull toward Yiddishkeit.

In other words, to so radically turn your back on your comfort zone–family, friends, career, even language–you have to be a risk taker, a non-conformist.

But…living frum. That’s the ultimate in conformity. Boy, was it hard the first years. Doing things just because it’s the frum way was, at time, impossible to digest. Squelching my well-honed instinct to disagree. Giving up T.V. All the forbiddens of Shabbos. Keeping a neutral expression at racist speech. Shaving my legs. Realizing that the right thing to do or say was pretty much the opposite of my instincts.

I think you have to be an actor to be a successfully assimilated B.T. And daven that after a while, you fully embody your character.

Originally Published Dec 13, 2005

20 comments on “First you Think in Secular and Translate for Yourself; Eventually you Begin to Think in Frum

  1. Shmuel, that’s a great point and I think it highlights the difference between a goal of becoming observant and a goal getting continually closer to Hashem.

  2. I think this post was suited for the “old” version of this website –dedicated to issues of fitting in and adjusting. Based on the “new” version of this website, I don’t think it fits. It sounds like a terrible idea to try to act “frum” without knowing what that means and then hoping to become it. In part because what a neophyte perceives as “frum” might not actually be what the Torah guides us toward. Better to learn Torah bit by bit and let the Torah guide the growth of one’s actions and character. No one, especially a neophyte, can know what the Torah says about a particular subject before they actually find out!

  3. I have a quotation that I found somewhere which I carry around with me:
    “A baal teshuvah is a person with an answer; a seeker whose thirst for fulfillment has been quenched because he or she has found an answer.”

    I have a love/hate relationship with the quote. I carry it around to remind me of where I have yes arrived to. I have found Yiddishkeit. And I carry it around to also remind that I have to continue pushing to deny the limits that this quote demonstrates. It’s those limits that I hate. My thirst for fulfillment has not been “quenched,” as in “extinguished.” If anything, it’s been the opposite of that, whatever the word is. The answers I’ve found are not in the category of “an answer,” to life, but the kind that open up more questions.
    Those questions pull me further and further ahead, and so I see that I am more of a non-conformist than I ever was.
    True, it’s taken me maybe 40 years to get comfortable with all that, but that’s kind of understandable. There is a whole lot to absorb and “morph” with.

  4. One caution here is distinguishing between truly racist speech and speech that is not politically correct. I just attended a shiur the other day given by the son of a famous Gadol B’Torah who talked about some things in a way that could have been mis-interpreted as racist, but I am sure that in context, he was just trying to make the points he was making. Therefore, if you think that a Rav or a speaker or anyone is saying something racist, the best thing to do is to first confront the person in private. IMHO

  5. I wonder about the original poster’s intention with the word “racist”. Maybe I’m reading too much/thinking too much into it; but there are two possibilities here. Maybe Shayna can clarify for us…meanwhile, I’ll explain what I mean.

    The ‘racist’ comments that many of us are familiar with, especially in the Ashkenazi population, are words like schwartza (schwarter) that have taken on a derogatory/demeaning inflection despite being neutral in origin. This is like the word ‘nigger’ that was originally just a different pronunciation of Negro, but became used as a demeaning term. When such terms or statements are used in the Jewish community, I think they usually show a lack of respect for the general humanity created by Hashem. I recall an incident with a friend in Yerushalayim about 30 years ago. Their parents had come to visit from the States for the first time. Walking down King George St., the father notices a black woman ahead of them. After commenting how pretty she was, he said something like “you wouldn’t marry someone like that, would you?” My friend responded that as long as she’s Jewish, and observant (this was in the early days of Ethiopian Jews making their way home), it doesn’t matter at all what her geographic origin or skin colour is. The parents were rather surprised. *That* is a perfect example of an objectionable attitude on the part of the parents. This is something that we would see in Israel (and the US), especially in the Ashkenazi (hareidi) community toward Eastern and African Jews. Another classic example of this ongoing phenomenon is in an excellent, sad article in the JPost (30 Oct.’05) call “Learning the Hard Way”.

    We would also see this towards non-Jews, even when it wasn’t relevant to the context (I would argue that the comments of our sages always have to be considered in the overall context). A lack of love for the children, implies a lack of love for the Father. Again, all has to be considered in context.

    What I thought that Shayna might have meant, had to do with how we understand the notion of Chosen People. If we follow the thinking/beliefs of such greats as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi in the Kuzari, the Maharal, Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, and many, many others, the ‘chosen-ness’ of the Jewish People is an inherent, inherited quality that began already in the time of Adam and his children. I have heard many people, including my wife, express dismay at this notion. To them, it sounds too much like the ‘racism’ I mentioned above.

    When our methods of thinking and terms of thought are already defined by another, non-Jewish culture; these can be very difficult notions to understand properly, and on their own terms.

    Just my $.02 for Chanukah (Chanukah gelt?) :-)

  6. I think that the racist issue is not present by families of shluchim who are more exposed to society. I believe that CH will eventually catch up just as they did with the norms of smoking etc. It takes a little extra time for things to sink in. Also, you will find many in CH who have great and respectful relatioships with african americans, yet their genral atitude is racist

  7. There are a lot of reductionist Jews out there condensing the entire scope of their Judaism into a single legitimate plank in the platform. To some it’s religious zionism (or anti-zionism!)for others it’s messianism, for still others it’s Holocaust remembrance. All are arguably authentic Jewish values but Judaism is distorted when one gets monomaniacal about any particular one. Altough non-conformity is a healthy part of our Judaism is it the be all and end all? Is it a stage that we ought to outgrow or a middah that needs to be nurtured, channeled and sublimated to new avenues as we grow and our circumstances change?

  8. Michoel – I don’t think that anyone said that kavod habrios is the entirety of Judaism.

    I think that the sentiment was that regularly expressing negative speech about non-jews in the form of slurs, was not healthy for the individual, their families and the Jewish community.

  9. Hopefully, the technology has not yet been developed to throw wrotten tomatoes through the Interenet. I would like to present a desenting voice. Kavod habrios is a very important Torah value. Recognizing the uniqueness and special status of Klal Yisrael is central to Yiddishkeit. Most American baalei t’shuvah have grown up with “kavod habrios” as their entire religion. When it is taken to an extreme it can also be a kind of avodah zara. There are many statements of Chazal and m’farshim which denigrate non-Jews. There also many that stress kavod habrios. There has to be a balance and all statements have to be taken in context. Kavod habrios is not the entirety of Judaism.

  10. To everyone else, I would like to plug a wonderful organization called Ayecha, whose mission is to combat racism within frum communities. I met Shirah at their Shabbaton a few years ago, and it was one of the best Shabbosim I’ve ever had in 16 years of teshuva.

  11. BS”D

    You sound like you’ve had a very interesting life. I used to hang around the East Village, too, after the Tompkins Square riots. I wonder if we’ve ever crossed paths. I wonder if we’ve crossed paths in Monsey. If you’d like to get together for a melave malka or something, let me know. I’m

  12. I think becoming a Baal Teshuva calls on us to balance ourselves in this area – yes, we need to be non-conformists with tremendous inner strength to order to move from our secular upbringing and towards a life of mitzvas – and we also need to balance it with a sensitivity to conforming to the Torah true parts of frum society. Being part of the klal, and the sense of achdus that engenders, is fundamental to Torah.

  13. Aside from the racial issue, which seems to be getting addressed already, I really liked the post. I related to it a lot. In my adult life, I fancied myself quite a non-conformist with regard to career options, style of dress, political views, club joining, etc. I liked to hear you say that becoming frum is also not conforming. You are right.

    It is choosing not to conform to the Reform path set out for me by my family, deciding to think for myself and want real answers to questions and not just the “I’m ok, you’re ok” schtick that Reform pastes on everything. It is being able to wear a long-sleeved shirt and long skirt while on a caribbean cruise with my family. It is about not eating the foods I used to love so much because I believe Hashem knows what is best for me. And many more that are also non-conformist. :)

  14. In our house, our kids know that racist speech is simply not tolerated and even the word goy when used derisively is prohibited. We try to emphasize kovod habrios and kiddush hashem. The difficult thing is raising a protest when others outside your home speak in a racist or denigrating way.

    A few weeks back, I was sitting with a wealthy individual with whom I was trying to cultivate business. He told me a story about a near car accident he was involved in and he used the N word to describe the other driver. I felt very uncomfortable but, I’m ashamed to say, that I didn’t say anything. Afterwards, it bothered me that I didn’t speak up. I decided not to persue business with this guy. Point being, even when we know its wrong it’s often very, very difficult to speak up. This uncomfortability is heightened when a BT is trying to fit in and not stand out.

  15. I’m with all of you. My students (8th grade) know they are not allowed to use the “s” word–even though “it just means black in Yiddish!” I also try to correct “goyim” to non-Jew, but that’s definately a losing battle.

  16. I”m glad someone else said it before me. As a black Jew and BT I have to say it is imperative that we don’t sit idly by when someone makes racist comments. I know it is not an easy thing to do, even for myself but sinas hinam is what is seperating us from the beis hamikdash! on this issue we must never conform!

  17. I agree with the Administrator. This has actually been a frustration of mine. I don’t think rational thinking is put to a halt when one decides to become religious, or that even some liberal or modern ideals need to be discarded. I think that faith is born partly (at least) out of reason (otherwise we would believe in everything), and that there are certain moral absolutes that hold true ESPECIALLY within the frum community, though they might not be put into practice. That, to me, is a call for rectifications, not silent acceptance.

  18. I don’t think we have to keep a neutral expression at racist speech. The best way to deal with it in a given situation or a given community requires some deep thinking.

    As Baalei Teshuva I think it’s important for us to try to eliminate any senseless hatred, wherever possible.

Comments are closed.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "First you Think in Secular and Translate for Yourself; Eventually you Begin to Think in Frum"

  1. […] From Chava in the comments to Shayna’s post: I think becoming a Baal Teshuva calls on us to balance ourselves in this area – yes, we need to be non-conformists with tremendous inner strength to order to move from our secular upbringing and towards a life of mitzvos – and we also need to balance it with a sensitivity to conforming to the Torah true parts of frum society. Being part of the klal, and the sense of achdus that engenders, is fundamental to Torah. […]