Tag Archives: ba’al teshuva

Difficult

by David J. Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“It’s difficult being a Jew.”

Children of the many Jewish immigrants who came to America at the turn of the 20th century continually heard that lament from their parents.

The complaint certainly was not baseless. “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday” was the usual reply from their bosses if they requested to be off on Shabbos. And the constant struggle to put food – kosher or otherwise – on the table did not make Jewish practice or learning very easy, either.

Now, after the turn of the 21st century, it’s still difficult being a Jew – but for an entirely different reason.

We no longer are confronted with a Saturday/Monday ultimatum, but we do have to face something that’s more insidious simply because it’s ever-present – the constant beckoning to “stop being primitive,” to “be enlightened.”

This is all the more challenging for a ba’al teshuva – a returning Jew – like myself.

Let me give you an example. I recently went to a friend’s house in my Brooklyn neighborhood. He has remained a staunchly secular Jew, once even remarking to my wife in a conversation about the Torah that probably would have been best not to have: “You swallow all that stuff?” All his grown children are on track to having non-Jewish spouses, and my friend, rather than lamenting the consequent severing of  Jewish heritage, is very happy about it and looking forward to having many grandchildren.

Just walking into his house was an instant flashback to the world I’m still struggling to tear away from. His shelves were filled with an extensive array of books – but not a single one even remotely connected to Jewish thought. He had a large, flat-screen TV with a full range of cable programming. And he offered to lend me a book which he just knew I would enjoy because of my keen interest in science: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

The book – which, sure enough, seemed very interesting and well-written – began with a synopsis of the “Big Bang” of creation arising from the infinitesimally small “singularity” leading to protons and electrons leading to atoms and molecules leading to different substances leading to different life forms leading to us – all, of course, totally by accident.

This, I’m beginning to realize more each day, is the basic premise of modern secular society – we’re all simply walking piles of atoms whose only goal is to do essentially whatever we want to do as long as it doesn’t physically hurt anyone else (and that single restriction is only due to an evolutionary mandate to preserve the species, the secularists will say).

It’s a mindset so pervasive in everything from textbooks to bestsellers to TV, iPods and the Internet, it has to be fought daily – hourly.

Compounding the difficulty – at least for me – is the literal account of Creation in Genesis. I still find it hard to fully embrace the concept of a universe only 6,000 years old and all of mankind descending from one couple created as adults in an idyllic garden.

But I have more difficulty accepting Darwinian evolution literally, either–despite Carl Sagan’s insistence that it’s “a fact.” The legendary late Rabbi Avigdor Miller, for one, has shot huge holes into evolutionary theory with scientific logic, showing very clear self-contradictions and scientific impossibilities in the theory.

Perhaps if I reach the level of Torah study that my 19-year-old son, Mathew (he prefers “Matisyahu”) has already attained in yeshiva, I wouldn’t have any struggle. He’s shown me examples of rabbis and scholars discerning from the written and oral Torah concepts of pi, a heliocentric universe, and even genetics centuries before the later civilizations proffered these ideas. Modern science seems to be merely catching up to some concepts already in the Torah, and computers are just now beginning to reveal some of the secrets of the gematria, the numerology, of the words and letters of the Torah.

Yes, it is difficult being a Jew.

But it’s also challenging, stimulating, and fulfilling – as anyone can experience after just one visit to the Shabbos table of a frum family.

My friend may have it easier – but he certainly doesn’t have it better

David Glenn is founder and publisher of Bay Currents, a community newspaper in Brooklyn. He also teaches math at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Ohr Eliezer, which motivated his son, and then the family, to embrace Orthodox Judaism.

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Shards of Faith, Reassembled

by Van “Zev” Wallach (Stamford, CT)

I wear a chai — the Jewish letter symbolizing life — around my neck. I’ve studied Hebrew and Yiddish, have visited Israel, subscribe to Jewish newspapers, and have been told I look rabbinical. In fact, my great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Schwarz, was the first ordained rabbi in Texas.

Hearing this religious background, you would never imagine my spiritual journey began as a New Testament-reading, hell-fearing member of the First Baptist Church of Mission, Texas. How the heck, so to speak, did that happen? And how did I return to Judaism?

The story began when my mother’s German ancestors moved to Texas in the 1870s, settling in small towns amidst Christians who enjoyed nothing as much as hectoring Jews until they saw the light. My mother married my St. Louis-born father, son of Russian immigrants, in Temple Emanuel in McAllen, Texas. They moved to France, where their union produced two sons.

As in other spheres, the Russians and the Germans couldn’t get along, so my parents divorced and my mother returned to her hometown of Mission, on the Mexican border. My father remarried and moved to New York, and I saw him one weekend in 10 years, a gap lasting from 1962 to 1972.

Shards of Jewishness lodge in my earliest memories. While my mother had no outward interest in any faith, she had bucked the family trend toward intermarriage and then provided, for reasons I cannot fathom, some aspects of a Jewish home. I like to think that a spark of the neshama, or soul, of Rabbi Schwarz remained in her and she unconsciously passed that along.

Once we went to Temple Emanuel, although my brother Cooper and I didn’t like it. Mom taught us the essential Jewish prayer, the Sh’ma. We had a menorah in the house, the Union Prayer Book, and The Wit and Wisdom of the Talmud, printed in the 1920s. Mom kept a bottle of Manischewitz concord grape wine in the refrigerator, forever skewing my taste toward nauseatingly sweet kosher wines.

I remember Mom sobbing when she watched Judgment at Nuremberg on TV. She saved her ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract. But we never had a Shabbat dinner, nor a seder, nor Hanukkah celebrations. An unexplained rift with the Jewish community in nearby McAllen ended almost all contact with other Jews in the area.

Isolated and indifferent to Jewish practice, my mother left religious instruction to our Southern Baptist neighbor, Mrs. D. Her basalt-hard faith reflected the Baptists’ smothering love of and barely concealed disdain for “the Jewish people” to make our family a natural target for intense spiritual cultivation.

Every Sunday, Cooper and I got carted off to the First Baptist, and in the summer we attended Vacation Bible School. My search for identity in an overwhelming non-Jewish world flowed toward Christian belief. From a young age, the hellfire messages of Baptist preachers terrified me into unease, guilt, and finally acquiescence.

I accepted Jesus to relieve the gnawing fear of damnation and was duly baptized on Super Bowl Sunday 1972. That’s also the day the beloved Dallas Cowboys, coached by Mission’s own Christian gentleman, Tom Landry, beat the Miami Dolphins 24-3. Thank you, Lord!

And yet, we remained the town Jews. My mother’s family moved to Mission in 1925; everybody knew who and what we were. Mrs. D called Cooper and me her “Jew-els.” When golf-obsessed Cooper wanted to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in high school, the adult sponsor exclaimed, “Why, Cooper, you can’t join the FCA. You’re a Jew!”

Meanwhile, a kernel of curiosity about our heritage sprouted in me. I listened to a San Antonio radio show, The Christian-Jew Hour, and read literature from the so-called Messianic Jews to try to square the circle of irreconcilable belief systems.

The circle would be broken when Cooper and I finally visited our long-absent father in Manhattan for a week in 1972. A self-employed engineer with WASP pretensions, he attacked my religious beliefs and most aspects of our small-town Texas upbringing, which he loathed. In his ham-handed way, he showed me I didn’t have to be a Baptist. He pried a few fingers from my death grip on the King James Bible.

Doubts, like weeds, cracked the concrete of my faith. Bit by bit, I became disenchanted with Christianity. It felt less organic, more imposed on me. As a high school sophomore I was nervy enough to talk to the rabbi in McAllen, although I could not admit my Baptist background. I even attended Rosh Hashanah services in 1974, my great act of teenage rebellion.

When I told my mother what I was going, she started crying. “Van, I didn’t know you were interested,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t think you would understand,” I said. I was 16 years old.

I stopped church but lacked the strength to start going to temple. By 1975 my identity and belief as a Southern Baptist had vanished. My Jewish self-education started as I read books like This is My God by Herman Wouk and Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg.

I liked what I read about Judaism, the faith’s simplicity and self-acceptance versus the devouring anxiety I felt as a Christian, where I always wondered if I measured up to perfection, whether I really believed. Trust me on this – Jewish guilt is nothing compared to the fears of a doubting evangelical. The last time I ever attended the First Baptist was to get a graduation Bible as a high school senior in 1976.

I first met Jews outside my family as a freshman at Princeton University. I checked out Hillel activities during Freshman Week and signed up for Hillel classes. But while I had left the Baptists, they hadn’t left me. My heritage dogged me, along with my utter lack of familiarity with Jewish practice and culture (getting the jokes in Annie Hall doesn’t count).

I had never attended Hebrew school, never lit Hanukkah candles, never had a Shabbat dinner, never attended a Passover seder. The Jews at Princeton seemed so East Coast smart and at ease, even jaded, in their faith. I felt shame at my ignorance. Book learning could not replace the experiential void. I yearned to know and be accepted, but I had no way to do that. Like the simple son at the seder, I did not know to ask.

I thought about unburdening myself to the Hillel rabbi, but he intimidated me. Indeed, I feared all Jewish authority figures as echoes of my father who would mock rather than understand me. Christianity remained my cross to bear. While my former beliefs held no appeal, I could not find a niche in Princeton’s Jewish life.

Jewish holidays passed in silence. Nobody invited me home for seders. Had I been more involved in Hillel, able to say those three hardest little words — “I need help” — then maybe I would have been welcome somewhere. I never asked, and nobody ever answered.

That changed in my senior year when classmates Marc and Steve invited me to join their families in Brooklyn and the Bronx for Passover. These friends helped me take my first steps in living a Jewish life. They both did great mitzvot — good deeds — and I will always be grateful to Marc and Steve and their parents for welcoming the stranger in their midst.

The pace of Jewish exploration quickened after I moved to Brooklyn a week after I graduated from Princeton. Synagogue-hopping became my weekend obsession, as I sought to expand my Jewish experiences. I sampled everything from Reform to the Flatbush Minyan and for a while attended the beginners’ services at the orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue. But I could never talk about the past. I arrived at services eager and anxious, and seemingly from nowhere.

How deeply that past remained embedded in me soon became obvious. I had met a woman, Beth, who was Jewish, jolly, and from Long Island. She invited me to join carolers bringing holiday cheer to Brooklyn. I reluctantly agreed and we gathered one Saturday.

Was the first song “Jingle Bells”? I don’t remember. What I do recall is a sudden choking feeling. A wave of anxiety washed over me as I realized, I can’t do this. The songs all had meanings and childhood associations far beyond secular celebration.

“I’m sorry, I have to leave,” I told Beth as I hurried away.

I called her later to explain. While Beth saw the songs from a distance, to me they reflected a faith I had been raised in, an affirmation of the birth of the Savior. To this day I do not sing or listen to holiday music — whether the topic is Jesus, a white Christmas, or Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.

I finally settled on the conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn as my shul. I still recall my first Saturday morning service. I knew so little about Jewish customs that I recoiled and shook my head when a man offered me the honor of an aliyah during the Torah reading.

During an aliyah, you read prayers in Hebrew before and after parts of the weekly recitation from the Jewish Bible. I had no idea what to do, and I declined. Who was I to deserve this? What if I screwed up?

I had reached an impasse. Spiritually, I was at ease in Jewish beliefs and had no desire to go backward, but I saw no way forward without ‘fessing up to my ignorance and what I viewed as my twisted background. I finally decided to speak with Kane Street’s rabbi, a man I immensely liked. In this Jewish version of a confessional, I came clean – about my parents, the Baptist beliefs, the unguided drift from Christianity to Judaism, my sense of shame at what I had been.

To my surprise and delight, the rabbi was not the least bit shocked. It turned out I wasn’t the first Jew to lack a bar mitzvah or an enriching Jewish upbringing. Imagine that. Our conversation marked my fresh start as a Jew. As the Baptists would say, I got right with God. I felt relief that I had faced the facts of the past and didn’t get laughed at.

Over the last 25 years, I have built my version of a Jewish life. I have studied Hebrew and feel, if not fluent, then more aware of what’s happening during services. I was married at the Kane Street Synagogue in 1989 by a new rabbi, a woman I like to call “Rebbe Debbie.”

Since my divorce in 2003, I have dated only Jewish women, who I find intelligent, passionate, and adorable. The rhythms of Judaism seeped into me, so that I transferred the emotional response I had to Christian prayers and music to Jewish liturgy that I have heard hundreds of times – Aleiynu, Adon Olam, Yedid Nefesh, Ain Keloheynu, Kaddish and Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva.

My adult experiences are catching up to the intellectual leap I made as a teenager. I gave myself the Hebrew name “Zev” (wolf) to use when I have an aliyah, an act that rattles me only slightly now.

While I’ve made peace with my past and current beliefs, I am still aware of the split in my life. My Jewish friends remember childhood seders; I colored Easter eggs. They played with dreydls; I decorated Christmas trees. They hated Hebrew school; I liked Vacation Bible School. My childhood and adult sides are mostly separate.

The chasm yawned whenever I returned to Mission and visited with Mrs. D. My break with the past saddened her. “Could you ever believe the way you used to?” she once asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m happy with what I am now.”

But some shards of faith bridge the distance of decades. I have the family menorah and the Union Prayer Book from Mission, and books that mention that hardy Prussian on the prairie, Rabbi Schwarz.

The chai around my neck? Mom gave that treasure to me for Hanukkah 1979, four years before she died of cancer. While a Baptist preacher presided over my mother’s funeral in 1984 and she was cremated, her older sister Charlotte, a fervent Baptist, placed Mom’s tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Gonzales, Texas, next to their parents’ graves.

Whenever I’m in McAllen, I attend services at Temple Emanuel – where I feel most welcome. And I still say the Sh’ma every night, the way my mother taught me.

Van “Zev” Wallach is a writer based in Stamford, Connecticut. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. Van writes frequently on religion, politics and other matters. His interests include travel, digital photography, world music and blogging, which he does at Kesher Talk http://keshertalk.com/, where this piece originally appeared.

“Shards of Faith, Reassembled” is reprinted with permission of the author.

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Walking a Tightrope

by Rachel BenDavid (Peduel, Israel)

Those of us new to observant Judaism constantly balance following the laws as we learn them with being sensitive to the feelings of others–especially parents. In some ways it’s like walking a tightrope,  always trying to make sure that we walk that fine line.

I recall at some point in learning the various halachot, my brother and I realized the upcoming holiday of Pesach might be problematic. The laws of kashrut are very strict when it comes to Pesach, and we both knew that what we thought was acceptable to eat in past years in my parent’s house wasn’t going to be acceptable for us anymore. We also knew that refusing to come home for the Pesach seder wasn’t an option. It would hurt our parents too much.

My brother and I were relatively lucky. Our parents had their “sore spots,” as is natural with parents whose children choose a very different path in life, but they weren’t anti-religious. We knew that with some tact on both sides, we could work things out.

So, my brother and I brought the meat and the handmade Shmura matza from New York City. We had the local Lubavitch shaliach come in to kasher what was possible to kasher. We bought new dishes. (My mother actually enjoyed feeling like a young bride who picks out new things!) And we used paper and plastic where we could.

We thought long and hard about how to organize the seder. My family was using English Haggadot (remember the Maxwell House Coffee edition?)  and we decided that we would all take turns reading aloud, and here and there my brother and I would “casually” jump in with “Oh, I heard something interesting about this,” or “I learned about this just the other week….”

In order to not make too much of a production out of the amounts of matza and maror we had to eat, my brother measured the quantities out ahead of time. So I knew that I needed to eat the amount on the plate he would put right next to me. He decided that he would be official wine pourer, and while he was taking care of everyone else, I would pour for him. (These things relate to some of the finer details about the Pesach seder).

And since a Pesach seder wouldn’t be a Pesach seder without invited guests, we invited my aunt and uncle, who wouldn’t have had a seder to go to if it hadn’t been for ours.

Soon enough all of the preparations were done–the food cooked, the table set, and all of us dressed in our finest clothes. At the appropriate time we heard the knock at the door, and I went to answer it. My aunt and uncle came in, and my aunt gave me a big smile, handed me a foil-wrapped package, and said, “This is for you.”

A number of things happened in the next few seconds, although thinking back on it the seconds seem much longer. My brain processed the information coming from my nose and my hands, and I realized–much to my horror–that the gift warming the palm of my hand was a freshly baked loaf of bread. (Bringing a loaf of bread to the Passover seder–for those not familiar with the laws of chametz–is the equivalent of bringing an expensive bottle of whiskey to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.)

My first thought was “Oh, no, I really hope biur covers this.” (“Biur” is the spoken declaration said the morning before the Passover seder which states that all chametz found accidentally in one’s house is like the dust of the earth, meaning without value).

My next reaction was one hundred percent due to my upbringing.  Long before I became an observant Jew, my parents taught me Jewish values, one being that you treat other people, especially older people, with respect NO MATTER WHAT. (There is a saying–“Derech Eretz kadma l’Torah”–which loosely translated means that treating other people well is a pre-requisite to Torah learning.)

So, although part of me wanted to shriek and throw the bread out of the window, I smiled at my aunt and said thank you. Then, after “casually” putting the bread down on a coffee table, I explained that “there just isn’t an inch of room left on the dining table,” and we proceeded to sit down and start the seder.

The rest of the evening went smoothly, although I couldn’t help being tense. I don’t know what I thought … that the bread would suddenly sprout legs and jump onto my newly kosher dishes? This gift seemed like the elephant in the room, to me at least. My brother must have felt the same way because as soon as my aunt and uncle were out of sight–we checked by peeking through the curtains–he grabbed the foil package and slam-dunked that sucker into my neighbor’s garbage can with a satisfying clang.

That night I had a little chat with G-d. Well, a more accurate description would be to say that I  had a hissy-fit along the lines of “Okay, G-d, what exactly was THAT about?!? Here we were, walking that tightrope and doing just fine, and you send a gale force wind to knock us off!” Needless to say, G-d was silent.

After my initial anger wore off, the really dangerous emotions took over. I started to sing what I call the “Ba’al Teshuva Blues.” Every one of us who has decided to become an observant Jew has probably felt this way once or twice, and some experience this every day. It usually comes after an embarrassing incident, or when all of the details of a new law seem overwhelming, or after you are disillusioned by the behavior of another Orthodox Jew. (“But… but… they aren’t supposed to do that!”)

It goes something like this: “This is never going to work. I will never fit in. Who was I kidding anyway? Is it really worth all of this effort? G-d will love me if I am a good person, do I really have to go the whole nine yards…?”

A lot of these emotions come from feeling isolated, similar to the way a 16-year-old girl might feel after having her heart broken for the first time and who thinks there is no one else in the universe who knows exactly how she feels.

Until you meet others who do know how you feel.

The first time happens when you meet someone who is dressed in full Ultra-Orthodox regalia and looks like he can trace his religious ancestors all the way back to Moses. Then you get to know him and he tells you his story, and it turns out that in the Sixties he was a hippy who partook of every illegal substance known to man. That really blows your mind, until you meet someone else just like him. Then you start meeting others who may look like they’ve been religious for a long time, but they have shared a similar journey to yours.

Then, when you mature some more, you do meet people who have been Orthodox from birth and can trace their religious ancestors a long way back. But you realize that they too have had challenges to face, and that Hashem puts obstacles in their way, just different ones than the ones you’ve experienced.

And you realize, too, that G-d is always forcing us to grow in one way or another, and our own personal problems are as individually designed as our fingerprints.

So you keep going, and you put these feelings into perspective.

Because, all in all, the journey–even if it means walking a tightrope–is worth it.

Rachel BenDavid lives in a yishuv in the Shomron and posts regularly on her blog, West Bank Mama (westbankmama.wordpress.com). This post appeared in slightly different form as “Following the Letter of the Law” in West Bank Blog (an earlier version of West Bank Mama) Oct. 29. 2006, and it’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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