A ba’al tshuva friend suggested I read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well to help clean up my prose. I read it like bible roulette. Make a wish, close your eyes, and open to a random page. It works better with the bible because Torah is a better fortune-telling wisdom-yielder, but it still works. This week’s fortune a la Zinsser: “Get their voice and their taste into your ear – their attitude toward language. Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own voice and your own identity.”
Ba’al tshuva means a person returning to the faith with fervor. It is a born-again Jew, a re-adhering human who decides to take the full religious plunge. I came to Israel a year ago, a mostly secular Jewess, with a thirst for Judaism. I attended Friday night services or Shabbat meals as a religion, and the rest, barring high holidays, fell by the wayside. In its place, I filled myself with yoga and meditation, Swami books and Hafiz poems, Khalil Gibran and others. I was a classic neo-Chasid, loving my mystical roots in Judaism and fearlessly informed by other religions.
I moved to Tel Aviv to teach English at the African Refugee Development Center. Besides teaching, everything else made me slightly miserable. This was not the Israel I remembered from living here as a kid, or visiting as a teenager. My own distaste surprised me as all I saw was a secular city aching for any opportunity to defy the confines of religion. I didn’t know a lot about Israel yet, like how this division between secular and religious is a defining factor in the country today. I just knew that religiously and spiritually—I was disappointed.
And then I somehow was ushered to Jerusalem. It was not an expected move. It was more as if there was some big hand, like in those claw arcade machines, and I was a stuffed animal, and someone in Jerusalem was winning the game. I moved to study Torah at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies and as my friend, Faith, explains, “You thought you were so open, but you were not as open as you thought.”
I was a post-denominational anti-establishment mystically leaning Jew enrolled in a strict text study program. I cried for nearly an entire month. For nearly half a year I took my tears to imply that I had defied gravity and was in the wrong place at the wrong time, like I had sold my soul. About nine months after my arrival I remembered what my rabbi, Rabbi Miles Krassen, then of Boulder, Colorado, once had said.
He told me a story of a woman whose steady flow of tears was a sign of her heart breaking back open, wide, and the tears were the trail back inside. Something like that, something you only hear in Boulder and only embrace, without cynicism, while living there. I thought I needed height. I thought I needed spirit and connection on a higher and ethereal plane and instead I was rooted and grounded and held by the warmest Jewish community.
Sure, it took time. I hated benching, I hated all the songs, I hated the blech and the halachic shaming. I still detest gender separate prayer, and abhorred the obligation and narrowness of everything. But it was that precise narrow obligatory Jewy core that restored a brokenness inside of me. I was cupped by a community of people whose beliefs did not echo my own, but whose devotion to being good people, G-d-fearing people and Jewish leaders was in step with my desires. We were an errant bunch, culturally mismatched despite being Jewish Americans, and yet linked by our separate relationships to the same core.
I didn’t know what a tractate was last year. I didn’t know how to read a Mishnah or who Ephron was and why buying property is complicated. I didn’t know that if you touch one edge of one sentence of Torah, it opens to a panoply of other complex sentences, perspectives, the voices of countless men, one after the other. I didn’t know how male dominated Torah scholarship had been, and how much it has evolved in recent years.
In a search for spiritual flight, I traded, without asking, for spiritual roots. I learned Jewish history this year, and modern Jewish thought. I learned about multiple modes of Jewish meditation practices, Jewish sex laws, and the inner writings of the Aish Kodesh. I spent sometimes more than nine hours a day learning, including evaluations of Tanach, of Chassidism, of Women and their obligations, or lack thereof, when it comes to mitzvot.
I was, in this process, terrified of losing my identity. I was worried about imitation, about Hebrew scholarship, about what would happen if I submitted to the rubric of religion. Somewhere in the middle something loosened in me. It was after I had to get over my arrogance, after I was humbled by low-Hebrew skills and minimal knowledge. Religious scholarship is a field in and of itself, and if I was the most Jewish of my secular friends in America, I became the least Jewish of a group of rabbis and educators and Jewish
leaders-to-be for a whole year. As they say, “It is better to be the tail of the lion than the head of the wolves.”
And so I let my attachment to ego go. Buddhism whittled its way in and I surrendered to Judaism. I koshered my kitchen. I began attending daily Mincha services. I stopped using my phone on Shabbos, and later my computer. I washed before I ate, kept laws like not cooking after sundown and waiting for three stars to appear to begin my week. I even did that old strange ritual where you jump towards the moon with an open hand, and watched bonfires sizzle en masse in Gan Sacher.
I imitated for a whole year and my fears of losing myself were never confirmed. As William Zinsser wrote, “Don’t worry that by imitating them you’ll lose your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.” My identity returned, in full throttle. “My” Jewish, my way in Judaism is paved clear as day ahead of me. I am losing my devotional practice as my departure and return to America loom. I am disengaging my submission in order to survive in the secular world all over again. I am not scared, though. If I can leave myself for devotion, than I can also leave devotion for myself. Somehow, I am almost certain, devotion will return, and return, and return again.