Refining the Rough Edges

“”Tsnius” is a broad concept that encompasses more than just clothing.

We need to be tsnius in thought and demeanor, learning to speak softly and carry a soft stick, modifying how we speak to each other and how we react to those inevitable “event cards” in our lives. How do we learn to be pure in thought and action, G-dly in manner and deed?

For the fledgling BT, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Growing up, I was known as “Foghorn Leghorn” in my family. As the disappearing middle child, I learned how to be noticed by developing a powerful set of lungs. I’m pretty sure I would have made it on the stage were I less shy than I was. In my family, you had to be LOUD to be heard, as rambunctious as we all were.

My aggressive and strong voice reverberates across the miles. People know I’ve arrived before I do. It’s just the way it is.

But just because I’m LOUD doesn’t mean I’m bold and confident. My ebullience masks a mass of insecurities and shrinking violet-itis.

I am a shy person. There you have it. Socially inept, tongue-tied and lacking in confidence, that’s me.

I don’t particular notice FFBs being modest and quiet all the time. In fact I’ve met some wonderfully outgoing and rambunctious characters in my travels – to my delight! I don’t think being a shrinking violet or a mouse is what is meant by being tsnius, modest and G-dly.

I do however need to smooth out the rough edges. I think we all have a desire to enhance our positive attributes while diminishing the negative – refining the nefesh to refine the neshama.

When I became frum, I tore into my wardrobe and eliminated the “not tsnius” clothing, mostly jeans and leggings. That was fairly easy to do. Okay, I admit it was a little hard to give away some of my favorite outfits, but I was never that flashy to begin with.

So now it’s time to overhaul my personality wardrobe.

I confess – I used to have a few swear words in my vocabulary. There’s nothing like a good expletive to make you feel better when you hammer your thumb. It just works.

I’m happy to report that I’ve eliminated these words, with just an occasional minor slip up, like when a pot falls out of the cupboard and hits me in the head. My husband always tells me to thank Hashem for the tikkun.

I’ve been able to successfully replace bad words with less damaging ones like “jeepers!” or “darn!”

I’d like to revamp me entirely though, so my automatic default isn’t anger or a negative behaviour mode when bad things happen.

I’d like to become the kind of person that doesn’t need to vent when things don’t go my way.

I’d like to be the kind of person that takes it all in stride and is comfortable knowing there’s not much I can do about life’s little annoyances, or even major catastrophes, since it’s G-d’s will anyway.

So, how do I do that?

How do I learn how not to let things get to me, to be less cranky when things don’t go my way? How do I quiet the internal road-rage when I hit life’s potholes and traffic jams?

How do I match my personality and demeanor to my tsnius skirts and blouses?

I think it’s by stilling the internal noise, and opening my mind and my ears.

Mishlei 23:12. Bring your heart to discipline and your ears to words of knowledge.

Looking for the Jew in Every Crowd

I often wonder what the catalyst was that sparked my return to Judaism. I mean the real catalyst. I can name you the month and the year when I took the first step to where I am right now — mitzvos observant, Shomer Shabbos, a baalas teshuvah just out of the nest. It was June 2001 to be exact, just four months before the defining moment of 9/11, when our whole world changed.

Oh, I know what crashed open the door for me. A Jewish forum like this one was my gateway to frumkeit, having conversations with people like my now-husband Eliahu about Judaism and what it really meant.

It all started with an argument. Don’t many beginnings? I was adamant I was just as much a Jew as any Torah observant Jew. I used the argument I’ve often heard from other Jews determined to defend their secular way of living. You know the one — “Hey! I’m just as much a Jew as you are. They would have made me wear a yellow star just like you.” As if Hitler was the arbiter of who is a Jew. Interesting that we do that — use fiendish Nazi policies to defend our Jewishness.

But I think my journey started long before those internet conversations that fascinated and ultimately ensnared me.

I graduated from my predominantly-Jewish public high school and forayed out into the world carrying a massive block of Jewish granite on my shoulder. Was it guilt? Was it fear? Was it defiance? Was it self-protection?

Virtually the first words out of my mouth at college were, “Hi! My name is Melanie and I’m Jewish, so there. If you don’t like me, I understand.”

I was expecting rejection, and made it easy for them.

I was always very worried I wouldn’t be accepted out in the real world, having gone to a Jewish but secular parochial school and then public schools that were 80-90 per cent Jewish. Pretty well all my pals growing up were Jewish, although I did have one good Catholic friend. The black rosary beads on her dresser and the crucifixes on her wall were repugnant and fearsome to me, yet we were great buddies.

This “I’m Jewish, so there” attitude was understandable. I grew up knowing about the horrors of the Holocaust and was fully indoctrinated into the “we Jews are different” worldview. I was well aware we were the object of much hatred and derision. And so I maintained this attitude, always fearful that I would be rejected because I’m Jewish.

This attitude underscored and permeated all of my friendships and my conversations. I’d stridently argue for Israel and rail against anti-Semitism. I ended friendships if they hinted at anything less than total support and empathy. I stopped talking for years to a friend when, during a conversation he said to me, “Oh you Jews and your Holocaust hobby horse. Why don’t you get over it already.”

I realize now that, as immersed as I was in the secular world, I never felt comfortable. I was always holding my breath, waiting to be found out.

I once had a summer job during college packing schoolbooks in a warehouse. I turned myself into a pretzel trying not to appear Jewish to this warehouse full of uneducated goyim. One day, I got busted. It was the year of my sister’s wedding and I was so excited. I was blathering on about her Sunday wedding and suddenly there was dead silence. “Sunday? She’s getting married on Sunday?” someone asked.

Stammering, I said, “Oh well, yeah, Saturday and Sunday. It’s a whole weekend thing.”

Not one person was convinced.

Sometime later that summer, the same lady piped up and said, “I always knew you were Jewish.”

“How?” I asked. “Your nose,” she said.

Over the years, I came to realize that everywhere I went, no matter what the situation, I always looked for the Jew in every crowd. And found them.

I had a GPS System for spotting them. I kept a mental roster, a who’s who of Jews in any particular situation. At my college. At my tennis club. At work. Everywhere I went.

And I think that is what really has kept the pilot light burning in me, waiting for the right trigger to turn me on. This cultural identification. The knowledge that out there are people like me with a connection dating back 3319 years to Har Sinai.

I first struck out on my own when I was 21. It was 1978 and I had taken a summer internship on a newspaper in the northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie, just across the St. Mary’s River from Sault, Michigan.

There were less than 15 Jewish families in a population of 40,000, and it was all pretty well French, Italian and Indian. A most Catholic city.

Here I was, all alone for the first time, far from home. I was so green you could have planted me.

I had been given the name of a woman to call so she could show me around and have me over for a meal with her family. I was too shy to call, and so I went out hoping to find the one synagogue in the city.

I found it, with Hashem as always guiding the way. It happened that all of the Jewish women in the community were there that day preparing for their Hadassah bazaar. I was very homesick, and it was wonderful to run into these 10 or so Yiddische mamas. It gave me the boost I needed to settle into the job that would launch my career. Sitting in Helen’s kitchen, looking at Manischewitz matzoh meal in her cupboard, was just like sitting in my mother’s kitchen.

I puttered along for the summer, and one day, I stumbled on a plaque near a small church. The plaque said, “Ezekiel Solomons, the First Jewish Settler in Sault Ste. Marie-Among-the-Hurons.” I just about fell down in astonishment.

A Jewish fur trader? Here? Yep.

It just goes to show you how small and connected the Jewish world is. You can find us anywhere. In every crowd

Getting Past BT Burnout

In the two months before Pesach, I had decided I’d had enough. My day was too full to work in the davening, the tehillim, the perek shirah, etc. etc., and still take care of my household responsibilities, a full-time job and a two-hour a day commute.

So I stopped davening.

I’d get up in the morning, make my coffee, sit down at my computer and check out my blogsites, all the while suppressing this nagging guilty feeling.

I told myself it didn’t matter, I’d get back to davening soon, that I was just tired and needed to regroup.

I went through my defiant phase — who needs davening, why bother, what good does it do, I bet half the women in my shul don’t daven, etc. etc. etc.

But while I was having this debate in my head, my external world was collapsing around me.

Our bankroll got thin.

I was tired, grouchy, depressed, inert.

I couldn’t motivate myself to do anything, let alone daven.

Work was hard, things went wrong, plates, broke, I ached, we argued.

And all the time I kept thinking — this is a slippery slope. How can you say you’re “frum” if you don’t even talk to Hashem?

“What’s your problem,” I asked myself. “You keep kosher, you light your candles, you do the important things. So who needs to daven? If I say a little prayer here and there, and remember to say my brochas for eating and going to the washroom, shouldn’t that be enough?”

I’ve done this before, dropped tehillim, stopped davening, davened rushed or badly, given up on perek shirah, until I pulled myself out of the funk.

It is so obvious to me that when I drop my responsibilities to Hashem, my personal world goes very wrong. Things are just harder, as if you’re trying to climb up a hill with a 50-pound bag of sand on your back.

I’m not saying I’m being punished. I think being a BT is forever this crab walk of sideways skittering, two steps forward and two steps back. But this awful feeling of abrogation, of dereliction of duty, of leaving things unfinished, that’s the hardest to take.

I committed to starting up again on Erev Pesach this year. I would pick up the football and run with it. And I did — the whole nine yards (figuratively speaking).

And have been faithfully doing so every since.

And my world is going smoothly.

The bills are paid.

The work is fun and challenging but not frustrating.

My relationship with my husband and others is excellent.

And the sun shines every day, even when it rains.

There’s no doubt in my mind that when you finally understand our sole job is to serve Hashem, everything begins to make sense. The priorities click back into place. Everything becomes a little easier and a little clearer.

I’m not sure, but I suspect that even a BT who decides it’s too much and goes back to his old secular way of life will never be the same again. They’ve had a taste of Gan Eden on earth by seeing a glimpse of kedushah and seeing their part in Hashem’s plan, and it will have left an indelible mark.

The Trouble With Dogs

I was shocked to discover that almost every frum family I visited not only refused to have dogs, they generally reviled them.

They had a cat here and there, and maybe birds, but never could I find a dog.

This puzzled me, having grown up with cats and dogs.

Oh I know there are those out there that have them, but none that I’ve met. And I know of at least one Rosh Yeshiva who told his prospective bachurim to throw out their TVs and give away their dogs. Or was it give away the TVs and throw away the dogs? I was too shocked by the edict to absorb it.

I venture the bond between the animal kingdom and observant Jewish mankind rests largely with the BT world, where we grew up secular and with furry creatures sleeping beside us on our pillows. I doubt this happened much among Torah households.

Hashem gave us dominion over the animals for our use. Not for our abuse, but certainly we were given mastery. I assume that precludes us from being best pals with Fido and Flipper.

When I became BT, I was told I should get rid of the pets; that dogs are an abomination and the reincarnated souls of sneakthieves, while cats represent the basest level of illicit sensuality.

If you’ve ever watched a dog in action – any dog – “sneakthief” is the most apropos description going. Try leaving a sandwich on a table within muzzle-reach of a dog, and you’ll see what I mean.

We have two cats both over the age of 22, the equivalent of humans in their 90s.

We also have a beautiful aging Papillon dog, a grande dame of 13 years. Small breed dogs live on average to the age of 16, so my pride and joy, Lili, is a golden oldie in her dotage. For an abomination, I sure love her.

I mean, Lili is cute. No bigger than a football with ears the size of catalpa leaves (hence the breed’s name Papillon – French for butterfly), I couldn’t imagine one person not loving this friendly, fluffy, cuddly dog.

But I’ve watch horrified as frum kids ran from her screaming in terror. Same reaction I get when we’re within 10 feet of Muslims, who definitely revile dogs.

There is a posuk in Mishlei (26:11) that says, “ki kelev shav ell keio (as a dog returns to his vomit), k’sil shoneh beivalto (a fool repeats his error).”

Dog owners know their beloved dogs will eat anything, much of it quite unsavoury. I suppose if you are what you eat then dogs are … (you get the point).

And as for a fool, well, yes, if we don’t learn from our mistakes aren’t we destined to repeat them?

I heard the word “kelev,” dog, comes from “ki-lev,” like the heart, or “kulo lev,” meaning all heart, and this is what I have come to understand about dogs. They are loyal, obedient and trusting of their masters, and isn’t that quite analogous to our service to Hashem?

Dogs have a time-honoured place in Perek Shirah with their own song: “Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before our G-d our Maker.” (Psalms 95:6)

When you look into a dog’s eyes, loving you and trusting you back, or watch how they communicate with sound and physical action, it’s hard to think of them as some programmed living thing of blood and sinew, reacting purely on instinct. To me, they are a miracle of Hashem’s creation – complete with a heart and soul.

They comprehend your connection to them and love you unconditionally for it. So how can they be something to be reviled?

Well, then I met my friend’s grandson Yaakov, aged 7, a young up and coming talmid from New York.

It turns out he is a big fan of dogs and helps out sometimes in the neighborhood pet store, taking the dogs for a walk.

The absolute joy and delight in his eyes when I handed him my dog Lili’s leash for a walk one sunny chol hamoed day was vindicating and heartwarming.

I wish those who revile dogs could just see them from mine and Yaakov’s perspective.

And if we are careful with the halachos regarding pets, what could be so wrong with loving and caring for Hashem’s very own invention?

May we all merit the blessings and adoration of Hashem as his loyal and obedient servants.

What’s in a Name?

When I began my journey of return six years ago, one of the first things I was encouraged to do was start using my Hebrew/Yiddish given names, Leah Hudis Esther, or at least Leah.

Not only was it meant to be a new form of self-identification, reflecting my journey of teshuvah, but it also would help me reconnect to my distant past – my Jewish past. How weird, though, like discovering a second personality or running into an old childhood friend.

It had been so long since I used the moniker as a child in parochial school, I had to knock the rust off. I remember my first time at an Orthodox Shul six years ago, meeting the strange panoply of characters that would become my kehilla. Tongue-tied and blushing furiously, I introduced myself as “Leah,” but it came out goyische-style, “Lee-uh” not “Lay-ah,” simply because of nerves.

I realized right away I had blown it. I was mortified. Someone corrected me, not unkindly, informing me, “We say, Lay-ah, not Lee-uh.”

“G-d,” I thought, “It’s just me here. If I really matter to you like they say I do, simple me, can you please help me through this horrible moment ….”

And he did. But that’s a story for another day.

It took me a long time to reconcile the Melanie I remained in my secular (work) life and the Leah I was becoming in my Jewish religious private life. Given my family’s strong opposition to my becoming observant, we fought over it. They thought my using the name Leah was pretentious, which is ironic, since we were all given lovely Hebrew/Yiddish names at birth, like Simcha, Reizel, Devorah and Dovid.

I’m not sure what label you’d affix to my family. We kept “pseudo kosher,” with separate milchig and fleishig dishes and utensils, same for Pesach, but ordered in Chinese every Sunday night. My mother made Shabbos Friday night meals, replete with white tablecloths, gefilte fish and chicken soup, faithfully bentsching licht. Same with the yomim tovim meals, after which we’d watch the hockey or baseball playoffs depending on the season.

We were staunchly affiliated with a large Conservative shul, but were devoted once-a-year attendees.

For better or worse, my parents insisted that I have a “Jewish education” at a Zionist secular day school, where I was taught next to nothing about Torah observance but did learn to read Hebrew, quite handy some 40 years later when I davened for the very first time.

The penultimate middle child, somehow I got overlooked and missed the particularly torturous experience of “serious” Hebrew school learning (Conservative style) and Bas Mitzvah prep. My brothers weren’t so lucky – they had upcoming Bar Mitzvah bashes to worry about. My big sister, the trail-blazing family feminist, had to get ready for a class-action Bas Mitzvah.

Imagine the brain lurch when I came to understand that in the Orthodox world, we devote our entire lives to learning.

Still unfolding, my journey of teshuvah began with an internet conversation several months before 9/11. I stumbled upon an internet messageboard on religion, where I found myself fighting the most virulent anti-Semitism.

And then I argued with an Orthodox Jewish poster, who woke me up to the knowledge that without love of Torah and fear of Hashem, our connection to Judaism was tenuous at best. I ended up marrying that poster, but not before we had a donnybrook over what it meant to be Jew.

What did it mean to be a Jew from my perspective? First you admit you have a problem, put pictures of Sandy Koufax and Leonard Nimoy on your wall, then whip out the checkbook and donate to a Jewish cause. Your job is done.

So when I encountered Eliahu, my husband of almost four years, I began to understand that my definition of “What it means to be a Jew” bore no resemblance to what Hashem expects of us as Jews. I also learned I was on pretty thin ice. As Eliahu wrote, “think of yourself as standing in the middle of a busy freeway, not realizing you’re in danger.”

That splash of cold water woke me from a 46-year slumber, and some days I still feel like I need a proverbial cup of strong coffee to get on with it.

But I always had my given Hebrew name, that tenuous tie to ancestral Torah devotion that somehow got lost in a generation of prosperity, comfort and assimilation.

Six years ago, not long after I told my shocked and worried family that I had become shomer Shabbos and was starting to live my life as an observant Jew, I went to a nephew’s birthday party. Despite the hostility, and the strangeness of my dressing visibly Orthodox (tsnius skirts and shirts) in a very secular family, I insisted on maintaining ties, and made every effort to attend their family functions, studiously bringing along kosher cakes and plastic utensils and participating to the degree I could.

On this occasion, I was perusing the birthday cards my nephew had received and picked up the one I gave him.

And it was signed, “Aunty Leah.”

I hadn’t intended to sign it “Aunty Leah” (I didn’t want start a fight). I didn’t realize I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” I was as shocked and dumbfounded as they were that I had signed it “Aunty Leah.” It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. When had it become so ingrained?

And now, years later, the shock and surprise has worn off. My family is used to the way I live my life and are no longer angry and resentful. I showed them it wasn’t a flight of fancy or a whim, nor had I been kidnapped by a cult.

I showed them I am as much Leah now as I had been Melanie before, yet it is still all me.

So now they send e-mails addressed to Leah. My mom tries to call me Leah, but still lapses into giggles of discomfort and gets mixed up. I take it as a sign of real progress.

The gematria of Leah is 36: 36 candles of Chanukah, 36 righteous people in the world, Yaakov returns to Eretz Ysroel after 36 years away from home, and Rachel dies at age 36.

There is a lot in a name, it turns out.

Two of our newest contributors, Leah and her husband Eliyahu run a forum called Observant Judaism HQ. Give it a visit when you have a chance.