Everyone gets asked. It’s the obvious question. ‘What made you do this?’
I’m not sure if others have a standard response but I still don’t. To me it seems the response changes every time. Maybe it depends whose asking. Lets see if I can give you an answer.
Myself. I didn’t have a midlife crisis, or accident, or anything ‘weird’. I wasn’t ‘searching’ for an out or an in. I wasn’t spiritual either. In fact I hated that word. Spirituality was for smoking hippies with dirty clothes and dreads. I was all facts. If you can prove it to me, it’s real. In a way that hasn’t changed. I was just intellectually open and honest, philosophical. My first Rabbi called me a truth seeker.
I was with my grandmother translating her memoirs. I will never forget how we sat together at the computer and she told me about her childhood. Before the war it was all very different. Kosher, Pesach, Torah. It wasn’t so long ago. Not long after I went on birthright (taglit) to Israel. I saw it as a cheap way to then continue my trip to Italy, my true destination. Boy was I wrong! Despite the hours spent partying that trip connected me to something greater than myself. I was part of a people, a society, a land. It was in Israel in the old city of Jerusalem that I felt truly ‘spiritual’. It was a feeling that came over me, and I remember thinking ‘this isn’t so bad’. When I got back I realised I had no Jewish friends, no connection to the Jewish community, but most importantly, no idea what Judaism actually is. I was studying philosophy at university but had no idea what the Jewish perspective was. Then one Shabbos dinner at home (tv on, non kosher food, etc) we only had 1 candle to light. Someone asked if its ok to light one and why do we even light two? I remember the air in the room. No one knew anything. The limited Jewish things we did were not based on anything real. Why did we even do them! How did they expect us to marry Jewish if they can’t explain any of it! So I started asking.
Why? What is it? What does it mean? Why? For about a year and a half I just learnt, every week. It was exhilarating to know. There were so many answers that drove even more questions. Such depth! I felt a little robbed that I had not been exposed to this earlier, that my family couldn’t tell me why. But then I realised that they themselves were robbed many years ago. That’s Soviet Russia for you.
For a year and a half I hardly changed anything. I stopped eating shellfish and then bacon. That was it. Then I went back to Israel and for a short month I learnt at Neve, asking the really hard questions. My chevrusa Feigy was perfect. As hard hitting as I was but with impeccable grace and modesty. I also experienced real Jewish homes and saw the beauty of a Torah life. It’s so different when you live on the outside with so many misconceptions and prejudice. I opened the door and saw the light. And it’s radiant. Even now I smile at the radiance of what’s right in front of us, in our pockets. I came back ready to be me.
It wasn’t until a year after that I started keeping some semblance of kosher and shabbos. About 6 or 7 years on (I forget exactly), I’m still struggling with family perceptions and not keeping all the mitzvot that I one day plan to. It’s a slow journey with real bumps on the way. The difference is, I have an amazing community around me and I know who I am and why.
Because from what I’ve seen, learnt and experienced, there’s a very powerful truth that can’t be ignored. Once you know something to be true you must follow it. That is integrity. Life isn’t about making the easy choices, it’s about the hard ones. They are often what make you into who you are and that allow you to look back and smile.
Please email me your stories and i’ll publish them. Sharing these can help others gain comfort in where they are at. firstname.lastname@example.org