Telling My Story

When people meet me, and find out a bit of my background – being from Alabama, not growing up in an Orthodox home – they often ask me to tell “my story.” I used to have no problem with this, but lately, the request for my story has started to bother me.

I don’t hide my background; I don’t pretend to be “FFB” (though I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I could “pass” easily). I’m very upfront with my background and the fact that my family is not observant. So why does it bother me to be asked about my story?

I think it’s because I’ve moved beyond my story. I’ve been shomer shabbos for almost nine years now, the majority of my independent life. My “story” occurred a long time ago. I just don’t feel like those events define who I am anymore, nor even my frumkeit.

Many people who become observant go off to a certain seminary or yeshiva and come to define themselves within the hashkafa of that particular place. I didn’t do that – I worked it out for myself, through many permutations until I made it my own. I imagine that it will still change somewhat throughout my life, but I don’t define myself by the organization that mikareved me, so I’m always a little uncomfortable telling people how I got “into” Orthodoxy.

But beyond having people try to define me by the specific organization that I don’t align myself with (which I don’t blame anyone for, it’s human nature to want to put people in boxes in order to understand them better), I guess I want to move on with my life, to just be a normal Jew who observes or doesn’t observe particular facets of Judaism. It’s not about blending – believe me, it’s difficult to blend when you are from Alabama, living in the NY area – but it’s about wanting people to look at me for WHO I am NOW, rather than where I came from.

Yes, our current lives are certainly affected by our upbringing and our experiences throughout life, but because the events that sparked my interest in becoming more observant happened so long ago, I’m not that person anymore. I’ve moved beyond it, just like I’ve moved beyond the person I was in junior high school.

So now when people ask me my story, I kinda cringe and give them as few details as possible. Not because I’m embarrassed about it or my past, because I’m not. But because I just have trouble remembering who that person was.

Originally Posted in December 2006

Fanning The Flame

Rabbi Tatz has a shiur that I listened to many years ago about how the initial spark of inspiration to any new activity or dream is extremely intense. After a while, the intensity dies a bit and what is left is a lower-burning flame that must be worked at, with much effort, to be kept alive. This is certainly true for myself, and I think many, baalei teshuvah, when it comes to spirituality, religious committment, and davening.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would be incredibly difficult to stay at such a high for an extended length of time, and one would likely burn out altogether after a while. It’s important for a person to find their equilibrium, to reach a point of balance between that intense spark and their former lower level, and to find it in a place where it is possible to sustain for life.

But it’s hard when you come down from that high. It’s difficult when you realize that you can’t channel that height that you once achieved, and if you can, it’s only for a short period of time. It sometimes makes a person want to give up altogether.

But it’s important to realize that you have to keep plugging away, that this decline is completely normal, and to maintain an equilibrium is an accomplishment in itself. Continuing to daven when it’s by rote, going to shiurim that don’t awe as much as they used to, and learning even when you aren’t as enthusiastic are all still important ways to continue feeding the flame of yiddishkeit that was once lit by a great spark.

I think it’s important that one immerses themselves in a community during these times as well. It’s much easier to feel motivation to continue performing mitzvos when he is not doing it alone. Friends, family and rebbeim can all contribute by adding kindling to the fire, and fanning the flame to stay lit. Having a support system in place to hold one up in times of darkness, to give chizuk during difficult challenges, makes a huge difference in one’s will to keep hanging on.

I think it’s also important to continue reminding oneself that this is a normal phenomenon, instead of beating oneself up for not always feeling the same level of intensity. It’s a normal part of being human to have ups and downs, peaks and plateaus, in any part of life, not just in religion.

The spark inside all of us can stay lit, but it’s not something that doesn’t take hard work and effort, and it’s important that we realize that the flame won’t always burn as bright, the fire as high, as it might initially. The important part is that we keep it burning at all, that we fan the flame, giving our souls the oxygen they need to continue shining.

Originally Posted July 2006.

Inferiority Complex

I was having a discussion with someone recently and he mentioned that one of the problems in the baalei teshuvah mindset is that BTs are often scared to question things they hear, especially from people who grew up religious because they anticipate that their own knowledge base is lacking in comparison. BTs just assume that because someone grew up in a religious home, with an Orthodox Jewish education, they necessarily know a lot more, and should not be questioned in regards to opinions relating to Jewish topics.

I also know from experience that linguistic mastery goes a long way in making a person sound like they know what they are talking about, and that the use of key Hebrew and Yiddish phrases can make a BT feel inadequate and ignorant. It’s a huge barrier to get over when becoming observant; I specifically had, and still have, a very difficult time hearing a lot of Hebrew or Yiddish and attempting to decipher what is being said. This language barrier alone made me feel very inadequate for a long time, until I got the guts to just insist that those talking to me speak in English or translate any Hebrew or Yiddish being said in order that I fully understand what is being said.

This feeling of inferiority in both language and knowledge is often just that – a feeling, rather than reality. And it often cripples a BT from really asking the important questions and clarifying for themselves queries they may have about specific things they hear. It’s important that a BT feel secure in him or herself, in his or her knowledge base, and in the validity of asking questions and thinking for him or herself. Otherwise, they might never come to feel like a real part of the observant community, and will sideline themselves as outsiders and inferior members, a feeling which they will, in turn, share with their children.

Now, I’m not talking about questioning every single thing one hears from a respected rav on the finer points of halachic decisions. But I am talking about having enough faith in one’s own knowledge to challenge what seems to be contradictory and at least ask for clarification when there is a seeming inconsistency, rather than accepting things that disagree with previous learning. And even when there isn’t a seeming contradiction, and one just wants to know more about where a specific halacha or opinion comes from, to have the guts to ask to be shown the source, rather than just accepting that it’s what “it says.”

BTs need to believe in themselves and the learning they have accumulated, whether that has been through formal yeshiva training, assorted classes or a lot of reading. Having the courage to ask questions leads to a better and more solid knowledge base. It leads to stronger convictions and hold on the lifestyle that has been chosen, because it is based on answers, rather than just acceptance of surface-level statements, with a view of the foundation upon which they have built their new lives.

And remember – there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Going Home?

As I planned my holidays this year, I decided that my travels should include the exotic locales of Providence, Rhode Island; Baltimore, Maryland; and Lakewood, New Jersey. Well known, respectively, for quaint villages, being a third of the Triple Crown and world-renowned institutions of higher learning, I was quite looking forward to seeing such a span of the Eastern seaboard within just a few weeks. And, oh yeah, for spending the various holidays in the various places that have become “home.”

As Elul passed, and Rosh Hashanah approached, quite a few people asked the inevitable questions, “Are you going home for the holidays?” “Will you spend Rosh Hashanah with your family?” Or just, “Will you be around?” The simple answer to all these questions is “No.”

But that’s only the simple answer. As each holiday came close, I realized how incredibly excited I was for each trip, and seeing the people in each different city I was visited.

Providence for Rosh Hashanah. Residing there is the family who played an integral role in my teshuvah. This family has been there for me through thick and thin for the past eight years, and as I have watched their family grow from 2 kids to 6(!), they have watched me grow in my Yiddishkeit, and grow personally to the place I am now. I’ve spent many Shabbosim with them, and now the holidays are becoming a tradition as well.

Baltimore for Sukkot. I can’t even begin to enumerate the people who have become my family there. Baltimore, the city I lived in for three years, the place I feel I grew the most, both religiously and personally. This was my fifth Sukkot in Baltimore, and I hope to continue the tradition for many years to come. Baltimore is such a wonderful, warm community, and the only thing I regret about my visits there is that I never have enough time to see all the amazing people I love there.

Lakewood for Shemini Atzeres and Simchat Torah. In the home of my friend who has made me part of her family. The place I am expected to be for holidays and Shabbosim on a regular basis. Where, for Pesach, this Sephardi family specifically made dishes sans kitniyot in order that I could stay there.

So while I may not have visited Alabama for the holidays, and I may not have seen my relatives by blood, I did go home. In each of the above communities, people have outstretched their arms, and opened their hearts, and made me family. They say home is where the heart is. I guess it can be in many places at once.

Honor All Your Failures

In preparing for a move, I was going through an old stack of papers and found inside a pamphlet that I was apparently given during one of my trips to Israel, entitled “How to get deeper into Torah without going off the deep end.” I don’t remember reading this pamphlet previously (because I probably received it quite a number of years ago), but decided to skim through it again now, just to see what kind of advice it offered to the newly religious.

The advice enclosed was sound, things like “Don’t abandon your old identity,” “Go slow” (5 times!), and “Ask questions.” But the one that really struck me was “Honor all your failures.”

“Honor all your failures.” I thought that was quite interesting and not something that I’ve heard so often. It makes sense; I’ve heard the expression more than once that you learn from your mistakes. And honestly, I know that whenever I mess something up, while I do have a tendency to take it hard (obviously, I still have this lesson to learn), I usually try very hard not to repeat such a mistake and as such, grow from it.

The pamphlet goes on to say that getting things right “prevents deep understanding” while “your failures bring depth and grace to your knowledge.” Again, I definitely see the wisdom in such an approach, the more you make mistakes and realize them, the more you recognize and refine the correct way of doing things.

I think this is a really important lesson for many baalei teshuvah, that you don’t have to be perfect, ever. That there is as much growth, if not more, to be made through mistakes and failures, than there is from doing things right. A writer learns that revisions make his writing stronger and clearer. An artist erases many times before producing a masterpiece. And a person should realize that through his mistakes, he internalizes what he is striving for.

Honor your failures, for they are that which you learn from.

Should We Attempt to Make Our Family Frum?

My brother recently has been searching for answers to the age-old questions. Why is life so difficult? Why is he faced with challenges? Why don’t things turn out the way he wants them to? He also wonders about God and religion and his place in the world.

He’s been asking a lot of people these questions. He asked the rabbi of the Reform congregation that my family attends; he talks to my parents and grandparents about it. And recently, he asked me.

He came to me specifically wanting to know why I became Orthodox. My process to becoming frum happened quite a while ago; he was young and didn’t remember the details, but he was certainly puzzled by it considering I’m the only Orthodox Jew he knows (he lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where there is what can definitely be considered a dearth of Orthodox Jews around).

I gave him a brief overview of my journey and process; I told him that, for me, Orthodox Judaism seemed to offer meaning and purpose to an existence that I previously couldn’t figure out, that seemed random and disjointed.
Read more Should We Attempt to Make Our Family Frum?

More Lessons from Psychology

I am currently taking a class in which the professor has been introducing several different cultural identity models. While each model was developed specific to a particular culture, they can be used more globally as well. Interestingly, while studying William E. Cross’ African-American Identity Model, I found a lot of similarities with the journey that a baal teshuvah goes through when becoming religious.

The first stage in Cross’ Model is one of accepting the prevailing attitudes of those around oneself. Not too much thought is given to the exact heritage of one’s birth, or what makes one different from everyone else.

The second stage is one of specific events or circumstances where one is pushed to reconsider their identity. This event causes an individual to look at who he or she is within the greater world and focus on how they identify and fit in culturally. I know that, for me, my first trip to Israel certainly caused me to look at my Jewish identity, which to that point had been something that I knew made me different from others, but not that different. It was something that I had accepted, but not something that made me connect to others who were similar to me in that respect. But after being exposed to the bond that ties Jews together, I had to really think about that aspect of my life and how prevalent it was in defining who I am.
Read more More Lessons from Psychology

Shidduch Considerations – Seeing Challenges As Opportunities for Growth

My parents are divorced. No one else in my family is frum. I have a lot of non-Jewish cousins. Unfortunately, but realistically, my brothers will probably marry non-Jewish women. I live very far away from the rest of my family, seeing them about once a year.

All of these things are not normative in the frum community. Therefore, they are marks against me on the “shidduch market.” You often hear people say they want a girl from a “good” family, someone who has a great relationship with their relatives, someone not from a “broken” home. So, there are times when guys are suggested for me, and after doing a bit of research, they decide they don’t want to go out with me. Based on all these things that are not me, they are my family.

I agree that having these hurdles in life is difficult, and it certainly does make an impact. But the impact it had for me was to make me a stronger person. I learned how to work through my challenges, how to face adversity and make the best of it. How to carve my own life and my own destiny in the image that I feel is the right one.
Read more Shidduch Considerations – Seeing Challenges As Opportunities for Growth

Lessons From Psychology

I’ve been reading Irvin Yalom’s book “Love’s Executioner.” It’s a collection of true stories from his experiences being a therapist. For someone who is in training to be a counselor, it’s an inspiring set of stories and points out many key points in the development of an outlook to dealing with patients and one’s own issues as a therapist.

In one of Yalom’s stories, he describes a woman who has come from a very difficult background. She discloses a lot of information about her background to him, including parts of her younger years when she did many things that she wasn’t particularly proud of. After divulging this information, Dr. Yalom asks his patient how it feels to tell him all these things. His patient says that she feels a mixture of being relieved and being afraid he will judge her and lose respect for her because of the information she has revealed. Dr. Yalom responds that she has no need to worry. He says, “The more I hear from you, the more I like you. I’m full of admiration for what you’ve overcome and what you’ve done in life.” (p. 146)
Read more Lessons From Psychology

Internalizing Tzinus

I was talking to someone the other day about the topic of tznius. She is newly observant and she asked me about the halachas of dressing in a modest fashion – now that the weather was getting warmer, she wanted to know what she could and couldn’t wear, and in observing others, she was a bit confused, because she saw that everyone did something a little different. I gave her a quick overview of the laws – covering elbows, knees and collarbone, wearing skirts and explained that when it comes to the rest of it, different people do different things and the best thing to do is to speak about it with someone you trust.

She then told me a story that blew me away. She told me that for a year, she had an eating disorder. She was obsessed with her body and her weight, and she became extremely thin, to the point where she could no longer find clothes small enough to fit her. Her friends and family were concerned and kept telling her that she was too thin, but she couldn’t see it.

She then learned about tznius and the philosophy behind it. She was taught about how the neshama should be able to shine from within, and that it is what is inside a person that is important. Her eating disorder disappeared as she focused on her internal image rather than her external one.

This woman, before even knowing the laws of tznius, managed to understand and internalize the underlying wisdom within the concept. I was awed by the fact that, instead of focusing on what she was wearing to be modest, she took it a huge step further and let the concept make an incredible difference in how she viewed herself.

Many people get caught up in hemlines, stockings, colors and sandals (and whether or not to wear any of the above). But tznius is so much more. It’s a way of life, of interacting with others, and of viewing oneself. It’s often a challenge to remember to focus on what is inside a person, to see their essence. It takes more effort and time to see someone for who they are rather than what they look like. But that is what tznius is all about – taking away the focus on outward appearance to give others the opportunity to look beyond. This woman has found it within herself. May we all follow her lead.

Finding Your Comfort Zone

I think one of the hardest parts of becoming a baal teshuvah is in finding a comfort zone. Being an Orthodox Jew is not a once-a-week thing, or even a once-a-day thing. It’s something that permeates and becomes your whole essence – your actions, your thoughts and yourself.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when facing so many changes. A simple thing to do in such a situation is to shut down your mind and blindly follow what others tell you to do. The problem in this is that, down the road, you often catch yourself in a place that isn’t really you.
Read more Finding Your Comfort Zone

Keeping in Touch with Before Teshuva Friends

Make new friends,
But keep the old,
One is silver,
And the other gold.

This was always one of my favorite songs throughout childhood. My family moved around a lot when I was younger, so it was difficult to sustain friendships while changing locations every few years. My friendships, even today, are mostly ones that have lasted a few years, rather than decades or since kindergarten.
Read more Keeping in Touch with Before Teshuva Friends

An Orthodox Jew with a Tattoo

When I was 18 years old, before I knew anything about Orthodox Judaism, I got two tattoos. It was the thing to do – I was in college and a bunch of my friends were doing it. As well as the fact that it was an excellent opportunity to upset my parents. I didn’t know that halacha said you are not allowed to get tattoos, I wouldn’t have known what halacha was anyway.

As the years went by, and I became frum, it was a problem. One of the tattoos is in a place where no one sees it, but the other is on my ankle. I had three options – get it removed, either cover it up all the time, or deal with Orthodox Jews seeing (and possibly commenting on) my tattoo.
Read more An Orthodox Jew with a Tattoo

Bridging Backgrounds

It’s very natural to try to insulate yourself with those who are as similar to you as possible. As a BT, we often form bonds with those who have gone through the same experiences as us – those who have also changed the direction of their lives to include Torah. This is a comfortable enclave; there are similar stories to share, others can appreciate the world we came from and can empathize with the current struggles to balance between non-religious familial obligations and our new lives.

The problem is, insulating ourselves with those who have gone through the same experiences as we have leaves out a lot of people – and many who we can learn an enormous amount from. And it also splinters a world that is broken in enough pieces as it is – just in the Orthodox world, there are divisions between Hareidi and Modern, between Chasidish and Litvish. Not to mention the huge divide that occurs between “frum” and “non-frum” Jews, a gap that many often believe to be unbridgeable.
Read more Bridging Backgrounds

Connecting to Others Through Davening

Growing up in a Reform Jewish congregation, I grew up with religious services conducted overwhelmingly in English, with great musical accompaniment. They lasted about an hour, included an organ and cantor with a wonderful voice, and some responsive readings, again mainly in English. On High Holidays, our synagogue employed a professional choir, featured a violin solo and also highlighted several other impressive performances. Going to services was like going to a concert, and only done on occasions.
Read more Connecting to Others Through Davening

Reverse Discrimination in Dating

A friend of mine who is also a BT was recently dating a guy who was frum from birth. She really liked his personality, his enthusiasm and his sense of humor. There seemed to be a lot going for them as a couple, which is why they were introduced in the first place. But she had a real problem relating to him on one level – he had never had much to do with the secular world, had never had secular or non-Jewish relatives; and that was a very important part of her life.

My friend is very close with her non-religious family. She grew up with some frum friends and a lot of non-frum and non-Jewish ones, many of whom she is still in touch with. She thinks it’s extremely important that whoever she marries feels comfortable going to her family for non-religious holidays, occasional Shabbosim and family events.
Read more Reverse Discrimination in Dating

Making Chanukah Cookies

Growing up, one of my family’s annual traditions was making Chanukah cookies. We would spend an entire day rolling out dough, cutting out shapes and decorating hundreds of cookies. After we were finished making them, we would save some for ourselves and then package up the rest in bundles to give to friends. My parents would often come to my school and do a presentation on Chanukah for my class (I was one of only a few Jewish students), and would hand out the cookies along with latkes.

Once I became religious, it made it hard to participate in our yearly ritual. I moved away from home because I wanted to be able to be part of a religious community (there were very few Orthodox Jews in Alabama, nothing that could be called a “community”) and didn’t get the opportunity to visit very often. Read more Making Chanukah Cookies