Can One be a Frum Jew with a Nose-Ring?

A classic Beyond BT post from December 15, 2005.

Growing up, I was always the nerdy kid. I was the one who did not fit in with the crowd, who did not care about being popular, who wore crazy clothing, who wrote poetry instead of paying attention in school, and who went through a rainbow of hair colors.

I first became enamored with Judaism when I joined my high school youth group. Despite my weirdness, I was accepted for who I was, and I did not have to change myself to have friends.

I first encountered frumkeit when I got to UPenn. The Orthodox students I encountered were warm and welcoming. Their love of Judaism sparked my interest, and I wanted more than anything to be like them.

As I started taking on more and more mitzvot, I thought that it was not enough just to be observant. In order to truly be frum, I had to have the” frum personality.” I ignored all the parts of me that I did not consider Jewish, and plunged into Jewish life, making huge Shabbat meals for everyone, going around the dorm building giving away fresh baked cookies or deli-roll, attending 5 shiurim a week (plus learning with a few chevrutot). Every activity I did was Jewish.

I think everyone goes through this stage, where they cut off all ties to their past persona and try to reinvent themselves as their new frum self. Unfortunately for me, this led to an identity crisis. I still did not feel like I truly was one of those Orthodox girls that I looked up to, and yet, I had definitely transformed into someone completely different than my own self.

It took me a trip outside to a park for me to consciously realize what I had done. Up until this point, I had not realized that there was this whole part of me that I had pushed deep down inside.

It takes a lot of thought to go back through your memories, your old essence of self, to pull out the remnants that can be saved, that can be incorporated into your new frum self. But I would argue it is something that we all need to do at some point. No one can completely re-create themselves.

For me this required dedicating more time to reading fantasy novels for fun, to taking walks in nature, and to relaxing in front of the television every so often. But even this was not enough. I felt that in some way I needed to reclaim part of my old unique self in order to be able to better merge that self and my Jewish self instead of having them as two different personalities. Something I had wanted to do since freshman year, but had told myself it was not something that conformed to Orthodox norms.

That something was getting my nose pierced. I had talked to my rabbi, who gave me the psak that there was nothing halachically wrong with this, (though he thought I was a bit crazy). I did not want to make an outward statement of rebellion, of rejecting the religion I had tried so hard to be a part of. But I wanted a reminder to myself that deep down inside I was still Rachel.

It was a very cathartic experience for me. And for all that I worried that people might shun me for not conforming, most people either did not notice it (since I got something small and discreet) or if they did, thought it was cool. Even the yeshivish community in Providence that I visit whenever I am living at my parents’ house did not really notice or think less of me.

So I would say that the moral of the story is that if there is something you want to do that does not conflict with halacha, but is not part of your community’s norms, go for it. People are more accepting than you would expect, and they might even respect you more for not being afraid to be who you are.

The Myth of the Plateau

Originally published Dec 26, 2005

What do you do when you start running out of mitzvot to take on? Do you just become more machmir on everything you’re already doing? Is it wrong to stop in a comfort zone and just stay there? What happens when you lose that good feeling you get every time you daven, and you stop feeling like Hashem cares about every mitzvah you do?

I don’t know if it would be accurate to call it a “plateau.” As Newton’s first law states, a body in motion stays in motion, and I think this applies to religious growth as well. But where does all this newfound spiritual energy go when you hit a dead end?

I’d call this the point where one backslides, where one can easily go off the derech. It’s when we realize that Orthodox Jews are human, too, and not some group of super-perfect beings whose every action is in line with Hashem’s Will. It’s probably the most dangerous time in one’s teshuva process.

If when you reach that plateau, which is really just a much slower incline, you’re happy religiously and stay that way the rest of your life, Baruch Hashem. I often imagine that’s how FFBs live life, never having to question their practices, and always feeling secure in their beliefs. Then there’s the rest of the BT world, who have to figure out what they need to do in order to continue on their spiritual journey.

And then a bigger question- is there just one point of decline, one hard struggle that you go through and then you learn how do deal with those times of religious dissatisfaction? Or do you keep on encountering them, again and again, when you least expect it? And then what?

As I’m writing this, I realize that I am not sounding very encouraging. Maybe it’s because I’m at one of those points right now, and I’ve been there for the past year. So I can’t say how long they last, or that people get over them (but they must, because pretty much every BT I’ve ever met has seemed inexplicably happy all the time) or that there’s a strategy for getting through them.

But I can say that you’re not alone, and you’re not a bad Jew, and you’re allowed to have periods of doubt. I can say that growth isn’t linear (and for those who think it is, watch out) and that everyone has their ups and downs. It’s kind of like a graph of the stock exchange. Your amount of faith or devotion may vary from year to year (or day to day) but overall it’s a trend upwards. Just don’t forget that Hashem cares about you, wants you to come closer to Him, and will help you when you need it the most.

A College Education?

A blast from the past. Originally posted on June 13, 2006.

I’ve seen many comments in response to “Sam Smith’s” “Financial Realities in the Frum World” that talk about the undesirability of sending one’s kids to public schools. Specifically, part of Alter Klein’s comment #169 stood out to me:

“If we send our kids to public school it is like offering them up as korbonot (sacrifices). Yes, they could turn out ok, however odds are against it. Don’t stand by while your brother’s blood is being shed. The so called colleges that many kids are going to are also destroying many of those kids. ”

While I do not have kids (nor am I even married), and am therefore not yet thinking about educating them, I’d like to offer an opinion from the “other side.”
Read more A College Education?

On Being Yourself

A year ago, I was at the wedding of two of my friends. At the Shabbas Kallah the bride went around and said something nice about everyone in the room. Since it was a year ago, I can’t remember her exact words, but she said something like this: “Rachel, your passion for learning is an inspiration to me.”

Now back then I wasn’t trying to pretend to the world that I had tons of emunah and really was dedicated to Judaism. During my freshman and sophomore years I believed myself that I had all this spirituality, that I was doing what G-d wanted, etc. But at that moment, I realized that I was somewhat of a phony. Everyone thought that I was spiritual, but my faith had already been tested by then, and I started having more and more trouble with serving G-d.

So we’re encouraged to dress frum (whatever that means) even if we don’t feel that way yet, because our actions should lead our intentions in the right direction. And actions are more important anyways.

But what if that frum feeling never comes? And what if others start believing in you, and they think that you’re some wonderful talmid hacham, or eishes chayil, and they’re inspired by you? Should you let them know that really you have all these doubts and that you’re working on your own emunah? Or do you let them use you as a role model, so they have something to strive for?

I think there is something to be said for being yourself. The more that you try to pretend that you’re something you’re not, the more it eats away at you. Slowly but surely it becomes harder to play that role.

Sure, everyone will compliment you, but you start to realize that they’re not really complimenting /you/, they’re complimenting a mistaken idea of you that they have in their heads.

So I’ve started being myself again. It was hard at first, and it took a lot of courage, but people are a lot more accepting than you might think, if they’re truly your friends and want what’s best for you. And I’m so much happier being myself.

So wear the jeans, the wedding band, the kippah srugah, the colors, the flowy skirt, the nose piercing, if that’s who you think you are. If you think you’re a black hatter, wear the back hat and the velvet kippah. Wear the strimel and the bekishe. Wear the sheitl, or the hat, or the tichel. Wear the long socks. But I would strongly argue against doing something just because it’s the norms of your community and you want to fit in. It only harms you in the long run. And I bet that you can find a community who accepts you for who you are. It’s definitely worth searching for.

Can You Really Get Everything You Want at Alice’s Restaurant?

Early on in my journey in observance, I realized that Passover was not a holiday I could spend with my family. Every year the first Seder would be at my grandparents’ house and the second Seder would be at my temple. Although my temple was within walking distance of my house, my grandma’s house was not. That, and the fact that my parents weren’t really expecting me to come home in the midst of finals. I’ve accepted not seeing my parents on any Shabbat or yom tov, save when they visit me at Penn. And I’m fine with that.

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, was one of the few holidays that I could spend at home with my family. For the past 10 or so years, we’ve hosted our extended family for Thanksgiving, with our cousins from New Jersey, California, and sometimes even Guatemala coming to the meal. Usually there are over 20 people. This was convenient when I started keeping kosher, since my parents started keeping a kosher house and no one had to make any special arrangements for me. Plus, I got to stay in my own home,sleep in my own bed ans see my cats, whom I always miss.
Read more Can You Really Get Everything You Want at Alice’s Restaurant?

Expressing the Music in my Heart

A long, long time ago I was forced to go to Sunday school and Friday night services in order to learn for my bat mitzvah, just like the majority of Reform youth. I always resented it then, and even now I wonder if anything valuable came out of those 7 years of Jewish education. I always thought Judaism was that boring thing your parents made you do because their parents made them back all the way to Abraham. That is until I started NFTY- the Reform youth group.

At my first event we had a few song sessions and services, and much to my surprise, everyone was singing and having fun. And I started learning all of the songs, and I started to connect to prayer through the beautiful melodies that we used.
Read more Expressing the Music in my Heart

Camp Nowhere (A True FFB Litmus Test)

Imagine this scenario:

You’re sitting with a bunch of your friends at a Shabbat dinner. Everything is going fine until across the table—

“Hey, Yosef, remember when we did that skit at Moshava for color war?”

“Yeah, and Jacob sang the theme from ‘Gilligan’s Island’”

“And us girls on the red team totally had more ruach, but the judges were biased and you guys won”

“And then Adam raided our cabin afterwards…”
Read more Camp Nowhere (A True FFB Litmus Test)

Shidduchim, the Dating Scene at Penn, and the Baalat Teshuva

If you can’t tell by now, I go to a secular university, but one that has a quite large frum population (around 300 including both undergrads and grads). The community is very Modern Orthodox, so shidduchim don’t happen around here so much. We’re all stuck on this campus for four years, and thus if anyone is dating, it is usually another person from within the Penn community. And although 300 is a big number, that means there are about 150 frum people of the opposite gender, and if you take out the people who are taken, and then the people who you would never date, and those that would never date you, it turns into a very small number, which may or may not be equivalent to 0.
Read more Shidduchim, the Dating Scene at Penn, and the Baalat Teshuva

Parents and Community

When I first started becoming frum, I was away at school, and I did not see my parents for the entire semester. I was nervous to tell them about my change of lifestyle, but I had to prepare them, lest I come home and they wonder who I was, and where was their daughter? I first started by telling them that I was keeping Shabbat, and that I wouldn’t pick up the phone if they called me then. Then came kashrut, then came wearing only skirts. I was reluctant to tell them about shomer nagiah (no physical contact between unmarried people of the opposite sex), since my parents had the misconception that only ultra-Orthodox Jews keep that law.
Read more Parents and Community