I love tzitzis and glitter and skateboard helmets, I love them especially all at once

“Where are my presents?”
“You got your present.”
“What present?”
“That the Hanukkah Man gave you.”
“That thing from last year?”
“Yeah.”
“I’ve been gypped by the Hanukkah Man!”

So, I came across this picture:

poo

Those were good times, yet terrible times. They were the best of times and the worst of times.

I look at myself and think: “Why didn’t they ship me to hadar immediately?” Then I think: “How did I get to a place like w&m?” Then I think: “How did w&m get someone like me?”

Want to know what those pins say? They say: “Moshiach, we want moshiach now” and “Tzitzis, we want moshiach now.” They were a gift, OK? (Once, a guy in Prospect Heights saw one of my pins and said, “So, you want moshiach, huh?”)

I don’t try to be eccentric, you know? I am a walking collection. For instance, my mom got me a skateboard helmet for my birthday and so I was sitting there like derp listening to Matisyahu wearing my skateboard helmet. And now I have glitter because the “hanukkah man” aka my mom gave it to me aka she re-gifted it from when I didn’t want it last hanukkah. Also, I collect stickers on the back of my computer. Look closely and you can see a real live leopard.

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I don’t want tzitzis to be a fashion accessory. I don’t want it to just be a part of my collection of things I seem to acquire. But I know from experience that–unless you’re a halachically jewish orthodox man–there’s absolutely no threshold you can cross where you won’t still be questioning your motives. (I say orthodox cause it’s not really expected so much outside of orthodoxy.)

Honestly, I have no way of knowing whether I’m just trying to have a fashion accessory, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. When I look at a woman with tzitzis I don’t think: “She just wants a fashion accessory.” I think she must be really dedicated to put herself out there like that. I look at that picture of me and I think “Why was I so hard on myself?!” If it were someone else in my situation, I would have judged them favorably. If they showed that kind of dedication, I wouldn’t have done all that, like, pilpul. I wouldn’t care what their lineage was, either.

I’ve had friends who consider themselves gentiles converting to judaism, and I’ve had friends who consider themselves jews converting to judaism. I think the way you see yourself makes you see your conversion quite differently. Maybe it was being in new york, but I don’t think you can dismiss subjective experience so easily anymore. There’s no “official answer,” which I was in denial about for a long time. Of course, though, not having a right answer doesn’t mean there are no wrong answers. I’ve known people who wanted to convert–who believed they had jewish lineage, even–but whose resolve and tenacity I doubted. Oh, don’t think I don’t still judge people! If someone told me they wanted to wear tzitzis and then in the next breath told me they’ve decided to follow Jesus/the Buddha/whoever, I will probably doubt their dedication.

But I also have friends who are converting, whom I wouldn’t doubt for one second, and whom I treat as jewish.

This, so far, is working better for me in everyday life than my outdated system of judging people solely by halachic standards as if I were their conversion rabbi. A conversion rabbi, of course, is concerned with the integrity of the system, but this is sometimes to the detriment of a person’s psychological well-being. I know this well. I can’t know which way of looking at people is the right one. Maybe I really am compromising the integrity of the system. But if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, all we can do is guess. And if God isn’t about to come down and tell us, we can’t exactly feel bad about making a best guess. That goes for anything, really.

And that’s all well and good.

I don’t know what all this means for me, though. I don’t know my own motivations most of the time, but I tend to believe that I should (like most of us, I presume?) And so I analyze it to death, a sound and fury signifying nothing. If I wanted to wear my tzitzis again, it’d have to go beyond “which mitzvos a non-jew can do” and “what does patrilineal mean philosophically.” It would have to go deeper. I’d have to enter a whole new system. I know I can’t be orthodox, and I know I can’t be conservative, reform, or recon either. It’s kind of an open field right now. Everything is free for the taking. I could be anything. I could be renewal (I’m not). I wish I didn’t have to convert (and therefore pick one…currently it’s RCA and currently I don’t want to change that). I wish I could just be. You know, in the margins. Like I do. I don’t feel like a convert. I don’t want to continue acting like I’m converting. I don’t want to be a gentile. I don’t want to be a righteous gentile. I davened like a jew. I learned gemara like a jew. I went off the derech like a jew. I came back like a jew.

Something has to change here.

The religious element

“We’re chained / we’re chained / we’re chained” -The Pixies

I saw this coming and everything, but now that I’m leaving the womb of brooklyn, I’m getting a little nervous. Before I came here, sure I lived in rural virginia but I had 1.) a conviction and 2.) a hope. Now, Judaism has taken out my heart and thrown it into the road and drove over it with a truck and stabbed it with a thousand knives.

So as it stands I am getting really burnt out on religion in general and theoretically I need a detox I think (sucks to be a religion major right about now). But at the same time I’m not really down with people jestfully insulting jews and joking about lame overused stereotypes just cause they don’t know any better or whatever.

Like, on one hand I want to be like “wtf why is my roommate playing her stupid lipa remixes and crap israeli adult contemporary music or whatever to get ready for this motzei shabbos party right now so they can just talk about sephardic guys some more, she’s lame and her friends are lame,” but I can’t say that to my non-jewish friends cause they’ll take that as permission to say stupid anti-jewish things. It’s like, maybe I think my mom did something weird but if I tell some stranger then THEY’RE going to think my mom is weird, and they don’t even know her! Not good.

I don’t know man. It’s very strange. I’m torn between two lovers. Actually, neither option is particularly spectacular if you really want to know but they both have their pros and cons I suppose.

Life after religion is vague and nebulous. It’s a world of cultural relativism and gentiles making bad jewish jokes and everything that happens to you has no rhyme or reason and you kinda just make up morals as you go and codified secular morality is called philosophy and we all know how well THAT turned out. And you kinda just drift in and out of different circles, making base camp by happenstance. At least with judaism I have an edah and even if I get annoyed by things about it every day at least I sort of know where I stand.

But life with religion is much stranger. Judgmental OCD people who use religion as an excuse to boss you around. Ladies who daven weird next to you in shul and you make fun of them in your mind but then you feel guilty but then they look over at you with glaring eyes cause you’re not singing the songs and you go right back to making fun of them in your mind. Feeling like EVERYTHING that happens to you must have a rhyme and reason…but trying to figure it out gives you an angry headache. Feeling guilty all the time over everything. Wondering why you put yourself in a community that’s 70% retired people and 30% really, really “normal” people who like to wear earrings and floral print dresses on shabbos. And sometimes velvet house robes. Not being able to cook for three day yontifs because your roommate takes over the stove, even though you don’t care at all and would cook all yontif long if she wasn’t home. And being with people who literally can’t stop talking or thinking about religion for ten minutes was really a culture shock, even though I was and possibly still am that person.

I can’t speak for them, but once you’re burnt out you’re burnt out and no matter what you do you don’t think you could ever see yourself having kavana ever again. I mean sometimes you bentch when everyone else is just to time yourself for fun or something but you don’t really think it would matter whether you did or didn’t bentch ever again, in the scheme of things. Like, I saw it happening as it happened, first with my not fasting then laxness with kashrus then wearing short sleeved shirts in the 100 degree summer came next, I have no idea how that got to be the order of things but there you have it. I can’t really put all the blame on that book about homosexuality and judaism by rabbi chaim rapoport. I think that was just the first domino, probably. The thing is, once one thing comes toppling down a lot of other things do too. I feel like my aish way of thinking taught me this. I know some of you liberal jews out there will say that you don’t have to “have all or nothing,” as you say, but for me I don’t see the point in doing just some of it if I don’t believe that the whole thing is worth keeping. Cause really, if I’m just doing parts of it because they feel spiritually good or right or whatever, you can be certain I’d be doing almost none of it. I definitely wouldn’t fast. I probably wouldn’t keep shabbos if I thought it was “just a good idea.” I definitely wouldn’t give tzedaka. I wouldn’t not gossip. I don’t see what would make it so different from secular morality which says it’s not nice to gossip etc. But at the same time, at this point I have absolutely no idea what it would be like to GROW UP believing in torah min hashamayim in a community where THAT WAS JUST THE NORM and to NEVER HAVE QUESTIONED IT!

I guess here I’ll just refer you to this page. I mean I’ve been encouraged by an insane amount of orthodox friends to try to stay in the fold and convert anyway despite my issues, which is very nice of them but to me it tends to prove that my orthodox friends are nicer than jewish law actually is, which confuses me if I think about it too much. On one hand, I’d like to think (and surely it’s technically more rational to think) that orthodoxy is the sum of its people and I only have to worry about them, not some amorphous law code which changes with the people anyways. But on the other hand although believing in the supernatural religious aspect certainly got me to do crazy things like move to brooklyn, after reading that book on homosexuality and judaism by rabbi chaim rapoport really sealed the deal on how ruthless jewish law is. I know that despite what anyone says, the talmud and rambam and shulhan aruch etc. still say what they say no matter if it’s actually the 1500’s right now or not.

And why does the law have to be made gentler/better by contemporary people anyways? What does that say about the law itself? And why do people say that God is so kind and forgiving when I don’t really know where that came from given that 1.) his autobiography doesn’t really paint him in the best light, and 2.) it’s not like trying to get to know him isn’t a completely one-sided endeavor. Like, people say God does this for them and God does that for them but when I look around I can’t really say I see it.

Sometimes you think you see it, but then it turns out it wasn’t something at all, you thought you saw a pattern but in reality it was all just a horrible joke. It’s like you spot some candy in a hole so you go down and get it, but then you realize both that the candy was really just a stick and you can’t actually get back out of the hole again.

The ladders of life we scale merrily
Move mysteriously around
So that when you think you’re climbing up man
In fact you’re falling down
-Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Couldn’t get ahead / I just couldn’t get ahead

So, I’ve lived in Flatbush for about 24 hours so far, and I have to admit that I definitely feel like everyone who looks at me knows that I am from out of town. It’s kind of funny though, since I’ve been trekking from here to the Upper West Side, and when I’m here I feel so modern, but when I’m in Manhattan I feel way too frum (but it’s cool cause I and hopefully everyone else knows I just came from Flatbush and that’s my excuse). I don’t really know what people are thinking about me in Manhattan, particularly the guys with black hats on the train going back to Brooklyn. They also probably can tell I am from out of town. I really do wonder what image I’m projecting; I feel like they’re like, “Why u even tryin’?” Also, there’s a giant seminary here so all the kids know way more than me even though they’re 12, and it’s stupid because now the tables are turned and I am that fool who doesn’t know the basics. Touché.

So, you ask, what do I see here? I see lots of guys with long coats but I also saw a guy with techelet. I saw a great beard on the train today, and I see lots of black kipas, which you can get at Eichler’s, and they come in like 40 different sizes, but only one color. As for the ladies, I see lots of baby carriages, lots of sheitels, lots of long black skirts, and lots of frum woman “shell plus plain shirt” fashions. There are also some MO people here, which I can tell when the men wear cargo shorts and the girls wear hoodies and band tees, which I also saw today.

However, I’m worried. It’s not that I want to be an Upper West Side person, it’s just that I keep messing with my own plan. It’s not even that I want to be egalitarian. (Whatever that even means anymore.) I moved here of my own free will specifically to get away from the old go-to, the “Do Judaism Laura’s way” free-for-all which I’ve been doing for the past two years. It’s not working. It would be easier to just be UWSMO (I made that up; it’s beautiful)…but that would be more of the same; more of what’s not working. I don’t want to do the old “pick whichever halachos make you happy;” I want a system. I’m already taking it for granted that I’m not going to fit into that system very well…partially because I’m me and partially because I’m coming from the outside…but what would I be doing if I just went straight to the trad egal/YCT world? But what would I be doing if I went to the “frum but only cause we were raised that way” world? I’m coming here to change inherently, although I wouldn’t have said that before obviously. I know it would be really simple to just stay the same and then put chavura Judaism on top of it or whatever, like nothing ever happened. I could wear my tzitzis again. But what would it do if they just let me do whatever I wanted all over again?

However, even if I try to stay and make it work in Flatbush, I’ll probably be found out pretty soon that I’m too modern. I thought I was just pulling off the “Oh, I’m just 21 and with it” look, but I just don’t know. The problem is that these other girls buy their clothes special apparently, from special tznius stores or something, and all my clothes are from Goodwill and it’s weird–you wouldn’t think this initially but even my denim skirt isn’t, like, standard. And that costs money, mate. I feel like being poor is going to play a pretty big part in my being modern, cause I can’t afford these specialty store clothes. Like, I’m looking at websites right now and they’re charging $44 for a regular black skirt. Non, non et non.

I don’t want to be modern or egal or yeshivish or frum but with it (whatever that means). I just want to be me, as far as clothes are concerned anyway. But I feel like what you wear kind of determines who will accept you in life. And I might be too eccentric for the normal yeshivish ladies here. But I’m not rejecting the yeshivish ladies. It’s not that I want to do “whatever I want” so much as if I tried to be a normal yeshivish lady it might be laughable. And you might think this is crazy, but I’d rather live in a really frum community and be the liberal one than live in a really liberal community and be the only frum one. I’ve done that already, and it wasn’t cool. (Also, to be clear, I don’t mean liberal like “I secretly believe the Exodus was a feminist myth” so much as “I’m going to Drisha” liberal.)

I was talking so much about pluralism in my last post, and I’m still into that, and this again is why it’s stupid that I have to convert. I have to STAY IN ONE PLACE for a long time. That’s stupid. But I know I need a home base otherwise I’ll just float around and never get anywhere. Converting or not, I still think I need a community, even just in order to branch off from it, you know? It would be cool if I could find an actual frum halachic community which wouldn’t be like “Why don’t you wear pants lol” and would actually have rules and not just let people run amok with their “pluralism” and “subjectivity” but can also appreciate my band pins and possibly taking computer music composition classes.

Is it giving up to want to keep my band pins and computer music composition? I feel like there’s a fine line between giving up your core personality in order to be more frum, and giving up the extraneous stuff that you might be attached to but isn’t helping your soul. However, I would be pretty sad if Matisyahu, for example, my posek, had decided that being a singer wasn’t tznius and decided to be a regular guy instead, I would be pretty depressed. But then again, he has his Chabad and stuff, and he didn’t just decide to be MO just cause they would accept his rappin’ or whatever. Also, Y-Love. Like I don’t know what goes into their decisions but they have their beliefs and THEN they have their rappin’ after that. I feel like if I just went the easy route and went trad egal** or “practice how you want” or whatever, I would give up my beliefs FOR the rappin’.

And that’s wack!

** You: “You don’t believe in egalitarianism?”
Me: “They really have to explain their halacha to me before I get into it. There’s a way egal can work, but too easily can it devolve into ‘we don’t like this halacha so let’s just change it for the sake of equality.’ Like, for me, maybe I’d want to learn gemara, but I feel like if I’m only doing it cause I think it would be cool, it won’t help me very much. Also, I can’t respect an egal community unless women’s ritual responsibilities come with ritual rights, which is where Conservatism went wrong.”

I Don’t Know Why But I’m Tired of My Life

Do you ever get that thing where you might listen to a song that you used to listen to during a certain period in your life, and then it brings you back? But then, and only then, are you really and utterly aware of how bad that time was? This happens to me often. And I think this is going to happen with last semester (and perhaps early this semester). This is no good.

For example, last semester I would really just listen to Y-Love and DeScribe and stuff on repeat, and now I can’t listen to them without thinking of how horrible last semester was. I’m not sure I knew how bad my life was at the time. But I felt trapped! Utterly trapped! And it’s too bad too, because I would still like them. And it’s even worse because I used to listen to them before last semester, and those were good times, only now when I listen to them again I’m going to always think of last semester, the bad times. Why is it always this way? It’s very annoying.

I remember mentioning at one point last semester that I felt like I was living my life online, and that all my Judaism was basically online. I was resigned to this idea, but now I’m a little horrified. I spent a lot of time online, and it got to the point where I felt that if I somehow erased my online presence I too would disappear. And that was pretty sad. Moreover, I was around people who constantly argued with me and it made me really tense…worse, we argued about Judaism, which gave it a terrible flavor. Last semester had a really bad flavor.

So this semester, at least nearing the end of it, I’ve pretty much checked out at this point. Seventeen days left. I’ve abandoned my friends, shall I mention effortlessly, and I’ve deleted every post I’ve ever made on Facebook, and I’m trying to eradicate the mindset that led to my feeling so trapped in the first place last semester. Must start anew. I knew something was wrong last semester–I came in following the letter of the law, and the semester threw me up with nothing to show for it, except eating treif again and realizing that what I was currently trying just wasn’t the way. It was a difficult road to the end of this year, to say the least. Especially since nothing I could have done would have helped. Time heals. It’s like when someone’s drunk, and the correct answer to how you can sober up a drunk person is “Nothing. Just give them some water and wait it out.” You just have to wait it out.

It’s weird, because in small increments, I always seem to find so many brick walls and roadblocks, but when I look at the past two years from afar, I see that my journey here to this point in life telling you all this has been almost effortless. It’s as if no matter what problems I had, I was still being pushed through the sludge to get to where I need to be. For example, when I started school here I had no idea what I was in for, and as the year progressed I thought it was impossible that I was “here for a reason.” I’m still wary of that phrase. Everything went wrong last semester–I hated Hillel, I only made a few Jewish friends and they ended up annoying me to the point I wished I’d never met them, and anything good that happened I think I saw through a filter of “Well, how is this going to help me convert, etc.” I was quite goal-oriented, but my soul had been sucked out.

And yet, looking back on the year, look how easy it’s been made for me! I didn’t get elected to Hillel, which makes it easier to leave (I would have had to resign mid-year), my school gave me $4,000 extra in financial aid, I paid off my old school loans, I met an Orthodox rabbi, who helped me with life, I saw myself at my highest and lowest, I was accepted to Brooklyn College, I sat in my Hebrew teacher’s sukkah and went to her seder, I learned how to explain why I’m leaning Orthodox, and all this within the year. I put things in perspective, which wasn’t the goal of course, but now I think I’m realizing that my goals were smothering me. I think, at least I hope, I’ll come out of this year with a better sense of purpose. Or something.

I don’t know what kind of vibe this year is going to have when I think back to it. This semester is the semester of Matisyahu, Nick Cave, Kate Bush, and Sleater-Kinney. On repeat. So, who knows. Hopefully this was a good and useful semester, because I don’t want to ruin them too, they’re my favorites.

Rava Say Relax

You know, the internet can be a pretty dangerous place. I’m pretty certain most of my readers know by now what I’m referring to, so I won’t recount the details cause I don’t think it needs another trackback. But I’ll admit that I’m naive and never thought something could blow up in such a way. And suddenly, everyone was taking sides! Making accusations! Making statements about how they weren’t making accusations! Even I’m slightly embarrassed by the fact that I’m partially connected to the wreckage by, like, three degrees. My first inclination was, like human nature I suppose, to get involved and argue in the comments and things like that. But as it went on, and as more blog posts were written as commentary, fueling the flames (this one included now lolol)…I started to realize that it’s really, really easy to get off track.

I’d been doing it myself…I’d been doing exactly what people on the other side had been doing; latching onto what I don’t like about other denominations and writing polemical essays based solely on a mélange of found examples. And using unwitting individuals as paradigmatic pawns. And worse, turning a small, semi-private affair into a big public spectacle for no good reason. And as I saw the implosion go down, and I saw how much anger and derision and explicit sinat chinam went into a simple blog post, and I thought to myself “I can’t become this person.”

I know that the writer of that post supposes the “exposure of Orthodoxy” (a common theme) is beneficial in the end, but in that post, into which so much effort was exerted, I saw a kind of coarse hatred and revulsion I’d never seen before, thrust suddenly into the limelight. It’s been really affecting me since it was posted, and not only in all the mitzvos broken in order to tell the story the writer wanted to tell. But because it spun off into such a thing, and because it was so hard not to look.

When you’re online, it’s too easy to start naming names and saying things like “I know I shouldn’t say this, but…” “I’m saying this because this information will help expose the general practice,” or “So-and-so shouldn’t have said thus-and-so, he shouldn’t even talk cause he once did this-and-that.” I was appalled by how many people spoke lashon hara while simultaneously claiming to be against someone else’s lashon hara. I know I’m no better, and this whole affair was probably the primary reason I decided to start trying to study more. Cause, frankly, I’m wondering if THIS post isn’t lashon hara.

Someone made a wise comment on the importance of tznius in these kinds of situations, and not throwing your business and your gripes out into the street at the expense of others. Even if you’re entirely in line technically (which according to my current read, sefer hachinuch, I believe I am when I criticize Reform cause I feel it’s bringing people away from Torah but not always so I admit I have to think about that too), you still have to ask yourself: Are you embarrassing someone? Are you causing someone distress? Are you publicly shaming someone whom you know won’t heed your well-intended suggestions? Are you publicly shaming someone who is like a tinok shenishba and doesn’t know any better? Is this a chillul hashem; are you making Torah look bad? Is what you’re saying actually helping anyone? I think one reason that post affected me so much was because I know–honestly–that I’m not above that kind of spiteful rhetoric quite yet, though I suppose I thought I was. I thought there had to be something that sets apart my actions from someone who doesn’t feel guided by mitzvos.

And also, when you say stuff, I recently realized, there are larger considerations. When you publicly denounce something the “Orthodox” do (needlessly, that is), obviously you never know what lost soul is hearing what you say and thinking “You’re right, Torah sounds dumb and outdated.” That’s one reason I really dislike when rabbis tell their congregants things like “Don’t listen to Rashi, he was into magic.” “Urim and tumim, that was put in by the priests so they could tell people what to do.” “It’s OK if the mezuza scroll isn’t kosher, *some people* are just neurotic and will pay $50 extra for one.” “Gemara is just nitpicking.” “Don’t read that; it’s Orthodox.” Do you think that will get people to want to learn Rashi; into being interested in urim and tumim; into being likely to have a kosher scroll; learning Gemara?

But I also know, as far as I’m concerned, that I’ve also been drawn into the indignant observer role, and it’s good for some things, but it’s also pretty consuming. You can spend your time gawking as others go down in flames or you can spend your time improving yourself. Just like how you can study Torah and use what you know to denigrate others, or you can use it to save the world. Pick one.

“Rava said in Berachot 17a, “The goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds, so that one should not study Torah and Mishnah, and then despise his father and mother because of their ignorance…”

A new playlist for a new year

If there’s one thing I like to do, it’s make playlists. If my CD player wasn’t broken right now, I might even burn this one because I think it’s pretty good. I put it on Grooveshark for you. It includes artists like Popol Vuh, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Sleater Kinney, and Idan Raichel.

I listen to like half Israeli/Hebrew and half American/English music (for obvious reasons, it was harder to find my Hebrew music on Grooveshark). Story of my life. I remember reading some article (probably on Beyond BT or something) where it said that BTs will never fit in entirely even if they talk the talk and do everything “right,” because they don’t have the background. They will always remember pop culture and recognize secular music. It almost made it sound like BTs could never be “real Jews,” although obviously that’s not what it was trying to say explicitly.

After reading that, I briefly considered deleting all of my non-Hebrew music out of iTunes (I didn’t even think about my record collection, weirdly). I did get some stuff deleted (I hated the Beatles anyway), but a couple of days later I thought about how dumb the whole scene was. I’m proud of my music collection. I’m pretty forthright about the fact that I don’t listen to “everything,” but I’m pretty knowledgeable about the stuff I do know, I think.

I keep going back between Torah and my secular joys. For most people, this is no problem, and maybe I’m just making it a problem, but I really sometimes feel like I’m the only person trying to mix the two. And maybe it’s just because the “secular” stuff I’m trying to mix is really reminiscent of my rebellious atheist days in high school, so it’s strange to me. Like, for instance, I used to really want to be a musician in high school, writing songs against religion. So now, I guess, trying to pick up the old keyboard again still has a trace of that feeling. When I’m reading a shiur about the kzayis I really, really don’t care about anything else, and I really, really think I could live in that world learning Torah all day. But when I’m listening to my Violent Femmes or watching True Life: I’m Transsexual, I feel like Torah is just keeping me down. I’m really torn.

This isn’t new or anything, but it used to be an exciting adventure, and now it’s just giving me an ulcer.  I guess someone could say that it’s not Torah that’s keeping me down, but machmir interpretations of it, but still I can’t help but wonder whether just ignoring things I don’t like is a great thing to do. It’s not really things like “Who should I listen to?” so much as “What’s really there?” For example, deciding how long your skirt ought to be is obviously up for interpretation (and I’m against letting old men decide such things), but I feel like whether you can wear pants is a more divisive issue. Similarly, I used to wear boys’ clothes in high school. Bad? Like, in my mind there’s no inconsistencies, but in real life I have to wonder if I’m just being idealistic.

The thing is, I can’t just leave it at that. Part of the journey is supposed to be “the struggle,” I guess, but I feel like that doesn’t apply to converts, particularly Orthodox converts. If you’re born Jewish, you don’t know how easy you have it, because you don’t have this “end goal” you have to get ready for. You don’t have to sell yourself to the rabbis. You don’t have to worry about whatever arbitrary thing they won’t like you for. And you don’t have to worry about whether your slate is untainted enough. You think they’d call someone who cares about transgender rights, would rather go to yeshiva than get married, and listens to music from 1996 (from headphones attached 24/7 like a limb) a good conversion candidate? Sometimes it seems that if I’m not 100% certain that I can get rid of all my less-than-compatible beliefs and traits, it’s no use converting (and since I’m like 60% Lithuanian, I also eternally look like I’m twelve. I can just imagine it now—I’ll be 30 and they’ll still be saying “You’re too young, far too young”). Why should I even want to convert anyway, if Orthodoxy means submitting yourself to Torah, when I’m so obviously not willing to?

Other things are less daunting. Like, for example, I don’t find it weird to listen to Sleater-Kinney “Do you think I’m an animal? / Am I not?”, then Matisyahu “Chabad philosophy / is the deepest wellspring”. That is just me and that’s probably not changing. After all, I decided that Judaism doesn’t really come alive in the synagogue surrounded by old people you don’t know, probably, for most 21-year-olds. Many times—and I know this sounds lame—my music is a more religious experience than making challah or going to shul on Yom Kippur or whatever else you’re supposed to do. It’s not a really Jewish thing to “listen to music,” and I’m not really an advocate of syncretism or anything, but that’s just the way. But part of me still wonders whether I’m really committing correctly, like I can’t tell if I’m in it to win it or not. At what point is it too much to “want it my way”? If I don’t like to do it “the Jewish way” every time, who am I helping by converting? But those are just fears, I think. I usually like to push them away. I mean, I don’t mind dressing different and doing different stuff, but what if I actually have to be different?

To clarify: I still don’t think my way of livin’—at its element, anyway—is incompatible with Orthodoxy. I just think that, as a conversion candidate, I’m going to be questioned a whole lot. I don’t exactly have a refined, ladylike personality. In case you couldn’t tell. I’m worse in person. And I say things like “I’m just going to be Catholic instead” or “I’m in love with Carrie Brownstein” and I don’t think that will really go over well with most people I’m going to encounter.

Teshuva

Ideal prayer, according to Nachman, occurs when the individual goes into isolation and pours his heart out to God with all the sadness, pain, and doubt that is in it. This is ‘prayer with a broken heart’…such prayer allows one to overcome doubts that result from futile intellectual arguments... David Ariel, What Do Jews Believe? p 203

unity, groove and teshuva be the new black -y-love

I should do teshuva.

I’m not entirely sure what it is, because if it is what I think it is, I don’t see why you should aim to be doing it all the time. (FYI, what I think it is is falling off the wagon and saying you’re sorry and getting back on.)

As some of you probably know, something terrible happened since I transferred to this school. Look, don’t get me wrong, I like this school. It is a freaking academic powerhouse (as far as a little school nestled in Colonial Williamsburg can be). But I think I referred to this phenomenon as “my soul is shrivelling.” (I love how quickly this happened.)

i.e. I don’t really do much anymore. Maybe it was all the “just be open-minded!” people who got to me. Maybe it was my Yom Kippur vow to “stop judging all those blithe ‘cultural Jews’.” Maybe it was the fact that everyone here seems to think that “Orthodoxy is like a whole different religion.”

But I stopped doing stuff. I use my computer on Shabbat (although I started using timers…an odd time to start, but I was fraught with guilt so I did). I don’t wear my tzitzis (half out of feeling undeserving and half out of conviction that it looks dumb when I do it). I don’t bentch no’ mo’. I don’t daven no’ mo’. I don’t study Torah no’ mo’. I’m thinking the only thing I still do is keep kosher.

On the plus side, I have become quite an active Zionist after learning the truth in class.

But I wonder sometimes. I used to think perhaps teshuva could help cure me. It’s supposed to help every time, right? I could just start doing stuff all over again, I’ve done it before, it’s like riding a bicycle. In fact, I did try it a couple of times. But it didn’t work for obvious reasons. I think I really just have to get out of this place.

But what about what everyone says? It’s “not supposed to matter what other people are doing”! We all know that. And we also know that teshuva is supposed to fix the problem. I mean, I did feel bad that I wasn’t doing stuff. Duh. I’m in an abyss of absurdity right now—look at me, a Jewish Studies major who’s trying to convert to Orthodoxy who isn’t even keeping shabbos! What a mess!

A friend asked me if I was going to “put things on hold” until I graduate. That was the first time I ever considered it. Tragically enough, that might actually be my best option here. Teshuva isn’t working. Trying isn’t working. (Actually, if you’re interested, I’m currently in the “God probably hates me” camp, but that’s not really different from my general outlook.) Even trying to do things is making it worse, like putting salt in a wound. I know I’m not going to start being regularly observant while I’m here, so why do it once or twice? That doesn’t make sense to me (also that’ll tell you I’m not Reform).

Then someone wise made a suggestion that I think about transferring, which I also hadn’t considered. I opened three applications today, because this is my new big idea. I’m going for it.

And I couldn’t help it; I just emailed Brandeis to see if they’d let me apply again. When will they see that I need to be at their school?

Ideal prayer, according to Nachman, occurs when the individual goes into isolation and pours his heart out to God with all the sadness, pain, and doubt that is in it. This is ‘prayer with a broken heart’…such prayer allows one to overcome doubts that result from futile intellectual arguments...

I could do this, who can’t? But how far would it go? Until, like, tomorrow? And if you’re trying to tell me this is a daily event, well I can say from experience that wears a cowboy out.

Backfiring: when Judaism collides with isolation

So, this whole “Go to a school in the swamps and get pluralistic because you have no choice” thing is backfiring. Everyone around me seems to be totally on-board with Interfaith Dealings. I know a good many very religious Christians (i.e. Bible quote Facebook status updates), and apparently I know by a variety of degrees some Jews For Jesus as well. Indeed, almost everyone I know is either a Christian who is interested in Judaism, an otherwise serious Christian, a Jew For Jesus, or is converting to Judaism (or otherwise on the fringe of Judaism).

This isn’t good.

Not because dealing with people with beliefs different from yours isn’t good; on the contrary, I applaud the efforts of everyone around me to coalesce and learn from each other. I mean, look at me now. I’m in our school’s interfaith campus club; I’m writing our school paper’s interfaith religion column; I even have a book from the library with the title The Journey Home. I’m trying to get spiritual and accepting. I’m trying to be some person I’ve never been, and I’m wondering if this is an impossible thing.

I’ve found myself pulling away from the Interfaith Cause just because something-I-know-not-what has been watering down my commitment to Judaism, you know? At the end of the day, I don’t think “all religions lead to the same place.” I’ve got to feel good about Judaism. It’s the one I’ve pledged loyalty to. I’m therefore imagining that if I had ended up going to Brandeis or JTS like I’d wanted, I wouldn’t be confronted with the barrage of self-doubt day after day, and I’d have more strength and resolve to approach the trials when they came.

But alas, my leap into the abyss is simply making me rather angry instead. I didn’t want to have to ask myself exactly why I dislike Jews for Jesus. I didn’t want to find out the girl from the synagogue whom I just invited to minyan is actually a Christian but didn’t tell me. I didn’t want to be coined as That Jew who, as a Religion major, must be planted firm in deed and creed. Because on the contrary, I am truly a mess. I can’t handle the barrage.

I thought this would be a good thing, but somehow it’s rather been tearing at my very core. I thought that I’d knock down the pillars of my legalistic mindset, and the fruits of unprecedented kindness and mercy underneath the shell would naturally bloom. But now that I can almost palpably feel the pillars come crashing down—as I skip Shabbat after Shabbat and bracha after bracha—the question whether this will work is becoming ever more immediate. And I’m getting increasingly worried that there’s not going to be any fruits blooming from the rubble.

My practice and my ideologies and my theology are separating. Before, I defined Judaism by its liturgy, and my presence at the synagogue, and my interest in Jewish texts, and the like. But now—whether because it’s become just another part of my life or because it’s become something that my life is trying to actively eject—I’m really not interested anymore. (Worrisome, since I’m a Religion major focusing on Judaism.) I’d rather listen to “Who feels and knows the Lord / Who feels and knows the Lord” by The Wailers than read the Ma’ariv service yet again, with its platitudes set in stone that are so vague that they have no meaning to me unless I invest them with my own, which is entirely difficult unless I’ve just read a good book or something, which itself is rare. And I’d rather listen to it on Shabbat than to sit alone in my silent room on Shabbat. And I’ve come to really dread going to the synagogue, whether at the Reconstructionist one, with its slow singing, guided meditations, and its weird communal tallit blessings; or the Conservative one back home, with its country club donors buying their aliyot, its responsive readings, and its stage directions (“stand, sit, stand, sit”).

Less simple to rationalize, I’m becoming—and I’m embarrassed to admit—bored with some of the mitzvot. I’m finding it less meaningful to do things like light candles and pray in the morning (I’ve been doing it by memory while making breakfast). I like to think it’s because no one in my family ever did such mitzvot, and absolutely no one around me does it, so it only seems appropriate that I too would gradually stop as well. But who do I have to blame? Sometimes I wonder whether I will look back on this time ten years from now and think how hard I tried, but alas how naive I was.

(And it’s even more awkward because it’s not like I’m just going off the derech, rebelling after having been raised observant; I’m going off the derech after having been observant for LESS THAN TWO YEARS.)

But I don’t really know what I want instead. I don’t know what I ought to want. I’m no longer interested in reading books about Judaism—be it history, halacha, Talmud, holidays—nor do I want to read any of the plentiful overtly Jewish graphic novels, most of which seem to be about the Holocaust. I want to do and I don’t have the chance to. Sure, I have the chance to go to the Simhat Torah here at the Recon place, but I don’t want to. Should I? I don’t consider them my community. Should I? I’d rather just stay home. But should I want that? I want Judaism to be compatible with my punk rock and my comics and my rather aggressive “Fight all things” theology—but is it so or am I imposing my own desires upon it?

I’m more interested in now. I want to experiment with my minyan, I want to make Biblical videos, I want to make tallitot, I want to read graphic novels—and not about some family in the Holocaust or some immigrants in tenements; I want to read about someone my age, in my situation. It’s like when you rent movies, and you rent two; one you want to watch, and one education historical documentary you suppose you should watch. I want to live in an observant Jewish community. But it feels as if I ought to be learning from this interfaith, pluralistic “no one here is even remotely like me” experience here at this tiny school filled only with Christians and “cultural Jews.” It feels as if I shouldn’t be resentful about it.

Since I’ve never lived in an observant community, I don’t have much of a baseline—so thusly when I start to drift, like now for instance, I always figure “What would happen if I just…quit?” What would happen? I’m not sure where I’d go. I’ve never had another religion. I could be an atheist again. I find myself teetering on that fence, especially lately (it seems that when you start doubting whether God listens or cares, He’s not exactly quick to reassure you). Ever since my weird little vow on Rosh Hashana to “stop worrying so much about halacha,” it seems that I’ve somehow taken that quite far and I find myself “not worrying about” almost everything. I find myself seriously considering my friend’s advice that birkat hamazon is only meant for special meals, and I find myself using the tired “mincha’s not essential, I guess” argument, and the “eh, this cake is probably kosher;” and meanwhile my textual criticism teacher is finally wearing me down with his “deuteronomists this” and “redactors that.” It’s coming at me from all angles; how can I even stand it?

I’m wondering what it might have been like at Brandeis, with their three different Jewish clubs for three different denominations, complete with their own minyans. I’m wondering what I’ll be like when I get out of this school.

If.

Well, this is the day I’ve been waiting for I guess

Mmm…my last post was perfectly timed. Guess what I found out today? The lady who sits behind me in Hebrew class, the lady from Poland, is a Jew for Jesus. Her Jewish ancestry got lost during the wars, she told us, and now she goes to a Messianic synagogue.

I couldn’t believe it! My friend and I were walking back from class to our cars with her, and she told us the whole story.

“So why Messianic and not just Christian?” I had to ask.

“They’re not the same. I still do all the commandments,” she said, not forgetting to mention, of course, that there are some you can’t do without the Temple etc.

“Wait, tell me one thing,” I said while we were walking through the parking garage. “What did he do?” She said he was resurrected, stumbling a bit and mentioning that other people were resurrected in the Torah. It didn’t really answer the question, so I recalled that Christians generally say that Jesus’ whole purpose was to retroactively discard of the 613 shackles of the Torah.

“No, Paul said that,” she told me. “The only thing that separates me and other Jews is that I believe in Yeshua.” I believe my face fell upon hearing that word, as I was reminded of all the junk I’d come across on the internet, where a bunch of random English words are replaced with Hebrew words. I remembered what a lie the whole scheme was.

Naturally, I had to ask if I could interview her for our school’s paper, and she admitted that she was still new at this and had just started learning! “I have some material I could bring,” she told me! Naturally, my freak neo-hasidic Reconstructionist friend kept telling her, “Yeah, yeah, no, I understand, I have a messianic friend too, yeah you’re right…” but I was filled with a need to knock down her lies, no matter the pragmatic consequences. Messianism makes me upset, proselytizing or otherwise.

My first real encounter. I couldn’t help but wonder, Where are those non-Pauline Christians supposed to turn? I suppose one could become Unitarian Universalist. I suppose one could also call themselves a non-Pauline Christian. But otherwise, I might as well think of this lady as a Noahide—she suddenly exclaimed how grateful she was that “God showed her the Torah”—but…but…

What should I do? Should I talk her out of it? Should I confound what they’ve been teaching her with truths? Should I tell her that she’s not Jewish? How could I, given that I also have lineage that doesn’t make me REALLY JEWISH, but I still enjoy the Torah as well? The only thing that separates us, as she said, is belief. A belief I think is totally dumb and wrong, but should I argue? Should I stay away? Should I bring it up again?

Should I?

I’m hating everything right now

“I feel a lot closer to a religious Christian than I do a non-religious Jew” -Benyamin Cohen

I know I will probably never actually do this, but while I was in the Saturday morning Bat Mitzvah service at the synagogue today (I knew it was a bad idea but you’ve got a yahrzeit you’ve got a yahrzeit), I seriously considered graduating a semester early. It was that bad. First of all, everyone sang really slow and every song was literally at the same tempo. Next, they only sang the first two lines of each psalm as if whoever decided that thought that no one would ever be able to learn the WHOLE THING. Hallel was missing. The middle of Aleinu was missing. Ashrei was missing. The paragraph at the end of Baruch Sheamar was missing. Even the Torah bit after the morning brachot for Torah was missing.

Weirdly, everyone sat down at the same time at the end of the Amidah, which was freakish if anything (I mean, I know you people don’t read it, but do you have to be so obvious?) Oh, by the way, the last “add-in” part of the Amidah was missing. We didn’t do the repetition of the Amidah. We skipped Emet v’Yatziv. Maybe that’s for the best, because I guess when you sing “Sim shalom, sim sim shalom” for twenty minutes at 40 BPM, you start to run out of time. And they sang this song in a sort of circle, under a makeshift tent of their pasul scarf tallitot. There was lots of clapping and lai lai lai’s and everyone was super excited to be there, but so are Pentecostals. That doesn’t make it right. It was the treifest thing. I’m not really sure it was Judaism. If you take out the Hebrew, probably it wasn’t.

The problem is that now I have to actually make the effort to explain why I thought their way of life is wrong and stupid, even if only to myself, because I know that I’m the outlier here and the burden of proof is apparently on me. I’ll have to tell the rabbi why I want to start an alternative minyan when I won’t even come to services anymore. I’ll have to explain why I think I’m right and they’re wrong. I’ll have to explain that I don’t think they’re bad people, I just think that it’s a bunch of crap to give a stamp of approval to non-halachic Judaism.

Maybe I panicked when I started figuring out the logistics of graduating a semester early. (It’s not like I feel like I have to graduate with my class; I’ll bet you anything graduation is on Shabbat…I missed Convocation because it was 4:30 PM on Friday, after all.) And I do want to use my time here as a laboratory, hopefully instating an alternative minyan, but seriously fun and games are over. I’ve got to get out of here, as I realized how right the rabbi was when he told me quite genuinely a few days ago that “no one here is halachic.” I can’t keep screwing around; trying to be observant in a place like here is a really dumb thing to do.

I know that being around “those not like you” and junk is supposed to be a virtue, but I think I’ve already played that virtue out, all things considered. I can’t even begin to appreciate others positions until I can appreciate my own, and that’s a fact for anyone. It’s why I don’t advocate raising your children with five different religions, throwing them out and making them “pick one.” Being thrown out into the non-Jewish world is great in theory, but a horrible idea in practice. Just like back home, it’s going to stagnate. It can’t grow here. I can’t believe I have to argue this.

And Hillel is making me mad as well. Apparently, last night they had some sort of pancake fest which was billed on Facebook as being for people who wanted something to eat after getting drunk for the night. The event listing ended with “The Jews are serving FREE pancakes!” And in the comments, there are such comments as:

“Look, I know this makes me a bad Jew, but I saw this and was like, “Fuck you, I hate latkes,” promptly realized you were talking about the other (better) kind of pancake, and almost couldn’t keep myself from clapping.”

“Once, while I was still muddling through my first year at this institution, a group of friends and I were making our way back from the units when one of our number collapsed on a path. Fortunately, we were very close to the lodges, and one who lived there, a Jew, saw the plight of my friend. This Jew stopped to ask us what was the matter, then quickly ran off, to return almost immediately with some other members of that faith. They deftly picked up my friend and bore him off to their home, where he was quickly revived with their folk remedies, and given pancakes and much water to drink.”

‎” “The Jews are serving FREE pancakes!” – LOL “

Is this not funny or am I being a killjoy? I know our Hillel really enjoys the cultural elements of Judaism, including rhyming things with “Jew,” but it’s so annoying to me. It’s like Christians have Passover seders. Get your own, man. It’s like they’re only in it for the jokes. (I don’t have to tell you this happened on Seinfeld.) I seriously can’t stand this self-deprecation for humor approach that seems to be popular these days. Lots of times someone will preface a sentence with ‘I know this makes me a bad Jew, but…” Just stop, man! Just stop.

Oh, also I’m realizing why the Orthodox aren’t supposed to go into liberal synagogues. You can’t really fulfill your obligation of Shema when they keep interrupting it to explain what Shema is…I’m also getting upset about all the denigration of the Orthodox; at least they try, you know. I can’t believe the world has come to a point where I have to single-handedly defend halachic Judaism, which FYI is what it’s supposed to be, in case you forgot.

I hate this.

For the first time, it feels like this commitment of mine to halacha is actually getting in the way. Not just getting in the way of being sociable or going to Convocation, but getting in the way of being a “spiritual seeker” or seeing the good side of things like that totally non-halachic hippie synagogue. I was too concerned with saying my obligatory stuff that I was just plain annoyed that they included all those dumb niggunim and their twenty dvar torahs (practically everyone there wanted to say one). I happen to find halacha more fulfilling than dvar torahs, but still…when I’m the only one doing it, I start to question. It’s giving me a complex. I don’t really want to be OK with it; just like I don’t want to be OK with Jews for Jesus. It’s be a lot easier to go PC and just accept everyone, but darn it I really and truly think they’re wrong here.

Identity crises

I’m having a couple of identity crises at the moment.

The first one is happening because of that freaking You’re Not Crazy (for Converting to Judaism) blog which is upsetting me because 1.) She’s starting to talk about things I don’t know about (mostly holiday stuff which I like to avoid), and 2.) I don’t like to admit that I don’t know these things, so 3.) I put up a bunker in defense and decide that “nobody actually does all that crap, don’t fence me in,” which worked for a while but now I’m starting to see that this is a pretty intense case of really bad self-understanding.

But at the same time, most people don’t do all that. By “all that” of course I mean selichot and not tearing TP on Shabbos. But then again I also thought that no one kept kosher every day of Pesach, and it turned out I was totally and shockingly wrong. So who knows what Catholic Israel is doing anymore? It annoys me to think that I might have to re-enter that “I’m converting; I’m learning new things” stage that I’ve grown to so dislike. Who ever had to be thrown into this demand for  all this knowledge and practice which I’m still not actually sure anyone does all the selichot? “Ask your rabbi if you don’t know which day to start on,” she writes. This is where it started. I’m under the impression that only prospective and new converts would care enough about how many selichot their minhag is or whatever to actually take time out to ask. Then I thought about how I just do whatever Koren tells me to do. But then I think about how that is no better than these Reform people whose rabbi lights their Shabbat candles well after shkiah. And then I get confused about my place in life.

The second identity crisis is kind of an offshoot of the first one—I’m getting really annoyed at a friend who seems to behave as if either believing in or saying or thinking the wrong thing will take her chance at Judaism away. I used to be that way, but I soon realized that complaining when things aren’t right is in my soul. I am quite committed to the idea that there is one mainstream to adhere to, and that creatively going astray is good and beneficial:

In my 20s, I discovered that many Jews were involved in the punk rock culture of the 70s and that artists I had looked up to, were Jewish themselves — Joey Ramone of the Ramones and Fat Mike of NOFX. Intrigued and empowered by the Jewish foundations of punk rock, I began to desire a real connection to my Jewish heritage. “Real” meant fulfilling, interesting, and on my own terms.

…Although usually characterized by loud and fast music, the essence of “punk” means to stand up for what you believe in, which is evident in every one of the chronicles in “Punk Jews.”

…Young Jews today are certainly not at a loss. On the contrary, we have the power to decide who we want to be, a privilege of which many of our ancestors were deprived. We create culture; it does not create us. We want “Punk Jews” to excite and draw young people by imparting a vital sense of freedom and ownership over their Jewish identities. To do so one must take the initiative. Young Jews cannot rely on large institutions alone to engage us, nor can institutions expect to reach every single young Jew. The goal of “Punk Jews” is not to provide answers but to start a dialogue, an exploration, a call to action if you will that will bring together people from all walks of life, who share a common heritage and ask the same question:

“What does Judaism mean to me and how can I bring it into my world?” [Algemeiner article on the Punk Jews documentary]

What is Judaism to me? I think I still remain pretty biased by the first books I read on this subject were all about the importance of mitzvot and the infallibility of the Torah so now those two things for one reason or another are totally indispensable to me, so that I really and truly can’t understand how someone can call hirself Jewish without worrying about mitzvot, and I myself havea  weird relationship to mitzvot in that I tend to believe that if I stop doing them I will get sucked into a void.

And worse, I have a secret but serious fear that if it is proven that the Exodus never happened or something like that my world would collapse. I said this before:

I was just reading some The Search for God at Harvard by Ari L. Goldman, and he wrote that he apparently took some classes in the Documentary Hypothesis, which is something I really fear doing. It’s not like his rabbi in the book, who picked up an acorn and said, “Now, it doesn’t really matter that this great tree came from this acorn, right? It’s only important that we can appreciate this tree now.” That would be true if the Torah is entertaining light reading for you or something, but we get laws from this thing. If the Documentary Hypothesis is right…then the laws aren’t obligatory. And if they’re not, what’s the point? … Why not just say “Well, this was real, but I’m done now”?

And now I really am taking a class on the History of Ancient Israel, which basically seems to be a textual criticism class, and for example for Friday I have a paper to write analyzing some paper that says Judges lied and David never existed or something similar. Which, fine. That isn’t my fear; I don’t know why we have Judges in there anyway; I actually barely ever read the NaCh. My fear is the whole “The Torah is a lie” thing that seems to be popular these days, and it’s especially worrisome because I’m in college to learn some freaking life truths and I can’t be chugging along on apologetics because that’s such a cop-out.

William & Mary: a Hillel report

Crossposted at New Voices

My first week of school has been…chaotic. Before I even came, there was a fire, after I came, there was an earthquake, now this horrorcane, not to mention the most grueling Orientation ever invented and having to be social 24/7 which can get pretty tiring when you’re not used to it. (Apocalypse Now!)

Meanwhile, my priorities have shifted. Back at home, where it’s considered a great achievement to graduate community college and not get pregnant before age eighteen, I had great room and impetus to formulate all these fabulous lofty plans for life, and my theoretical theology grew and grew, and I had tons of time to decide that I had things figured out. No obstacles! No fear! But now that I’ve moved to Williamsburg, all the obligations I made while I was in my bubble are starting to have their consequences now that I’m outside of my bubble.

For example, keeping kosher is hard on an Orientation schedule, where everyone is supposed to eat at the same time in the same dining hall. So is keeping Shabbat when you move into your new apartment on a Friday and the very next Friday you’re under evacuation orders! I’ve had to pray on a bus, on campus, on the stairs, and at the bus stop (all in front of tons of people, of course), and those were the days I remembered to do it. And I’ve had to wonder how many people avoided talking to me because they thought my tzitzit was too weird or my clothes make me look poor (that one’s probably true). When it’s the first week of classes and you’re trying to make friends, it’s a little exasperating to be confronted with this sudden clash of values. I’d prepared for this in theory, but now that it’s starting to dawn on me that I’ve actually chosen to start this new life as that really, really religious kid that you ought to keep away from, it’s a little frightening. Because I’m doing it to myself. For reasons I still don’t quite understand.

It all came to fruition at the first William & Mary Hillel event of the semester. During the Club Fair, the girl at the Hillel table seemed really excited to see me. “You should come to our barbecue!” she urged. So I had to go. I want to change the Jewish world as we know it, remember? I had to make friends with them. Needless to say, whether it was the impending hurricane or the fact that everyone looked like they were from Long Island, it didn’t go very well.

We had to walk through a bit on construction to get to it, and “it” turned out to be two picnic tables with hot dogs and chips on them. And a small group of people who could be barely bothered to look at the newcomers cautiously approaching them.

I don’t know if you can see what’s going on here, but I quickly noticed a certain something about the demographics of this event. It started out rather evenly distributed, but as time went on, more dudes started showing up. Weirdly, a couple of them seemed like they came straight from Long Island. That alone was enough to make me fearful, but I would have been perfectly OK had they been friendly Long Island dudes. But no, they went straight for their friends and my two guests and I went pretty much ignored.

Eventually, we were approached by one girl who had recognized my friend from one of her classes, and they started talking, as I stood near them awkwardly. Some guy came up to my friend’s boyfriend and asked where he was from and so on. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“No, I’m just here with her,” he replied, pointing to my friend.

“Neither am I!” he whispered gleefully. I sighed.

They talked for a while and then the stranger walked off. And I took that moment to babble incoherently to someone near me (“Man, look at all the dudes,” I seem to recall saying).

Maybe I’ll give them a break because it was their first event of the semester, and I guess they were more excited about seeing their friends than about greeting new people. Suddenly I thought back to all the discussions on how independent minyanim tend to be perceived as unfriendly to outsiders, but that’s just because they have a higher initial social curve…or something. After all, this Hillel proudly describes itself as “tightly knit”, and here I am seeing that description in the flesh. But look at these people! They seemed so incredibly…normal. It could have been any club on campus. What differentiated it? What made it special? What made it Jewish? These are the questions only a detective can answer.

But maybe it was partially my fault. These probably weren’t the type to wonder how to keep Shabbat during a hurricane evacuation, or to say seemingly constant berachot for things, or to go through painstaking soul-searching to figure out how they feel about halacha. And that seems to be the baseline here. A cultural baseline. Fine.

But what does that make me? Ultra-Orthodox? Am I going to be the religious token again, just like I was in community college? Look, I know tzitzit looks weird. It’s weird to wear a denim skirt while everyone else is wearing shorty shorts. Of course they didn’t want to talk to me. When you suspect that you’re “too much” even for your Hillel, you really start to wonder what your priorities are. I knew all my newfound obligations weren’t going to make me any friends, but good heavens being ignored feels terrible when you know you’re probably bringing it on yourself. Am I doing a stupid thing? Should I just put an end to this before it’s too late?

Wow, how quickly it all shatters

Well, yesterday morning I woke up to a very distressing phone call—suddenly, I owe my community college $1,325, and I’d better pay that soon before it “goes to collections”. “Maybe your mother can help you pay it!” the lady offered helpfully. Jarred, I drove down to the school, found the lady who’d called me, and sat down in her office to hear that I really shouldn’t have withdrawn from those summer classes…because “now the government wants their money back”. And it was a Pell grant, so now it’s like I’m in debt. Worse, she said, “if it goes to collections it will end up on your credit record!”

Well, I don’t have $1,325, man. The next time I will have any money will be when William & Mary gives me financial aid. But the lady broke that dream to bits, too; she said that since it’s a *special government* debt, they won’t let me get financial aid at William & Mary. Heck, they probably won’t even let me enroll. Scare tactics. (The government doesn’t care whose life they ruin as long as they follow the rules; I never really saw that but now I do.)

So I went down to our financial aid office to make sure this is really what I was hearing, and the lady there agreed. I wouldn’t be able to enroll “at any institution” until I pay that debt back. And I’m leaving in three days…so I’d have to come up with $1,325 before classes start this month.

Well, needless to say the wheels started turning. “Well, it looks like I’ll be staying here for my THIRD YEAR,” I thought. “I’ll have to get a job.” “F this, I’m going to major in something else and change my whole scheme.” Religion seemed quaint and dumb at that moment; I had a debt to pay! This is money! I was quite ready to major in Math or Business just so this would never happen again…even though I suck at both.

I might still have to end up getting a credit card to pay this, but I did call William & Mary and they said that some debt can’t keep me from enrolling or getting financial aid. And it was settled, because I believe William & Mary way more than some incompetent people at my community college who’d actually previously told me that withdrawing after the grade penalty date wouldn’t affect financial aid anyway. And I was fine again.

But wow, was I ready to give everything up so quickly. It was an interesting and slightly frightening study in my inner workings, the workings that say “Well, this was real, but I’m done now.” (I do the same thing with friends…I blame having moved thirteen times in my life…)

I was just reading some The Search for God at Harvard by Ari L. Goldman, and he wrote that he apparently took some classes in the Documentary Hypothesis, which is something I really fear doing. It’s not like his rabbi in the book, who picked up an acorn and said, “Now, it doesn’t really matter that this great tree came from this acorn, right? It’s only important that we can appreciate this tree now.” That would be true if the Torah is entertaining light reading for you or something, but we get laws from this thing. If the Documentary Hypothesis is right (which I am vehemently against, another reason I’m scared to take a class; I might purposely fail)…then the laws aren’t obligatory. And if they’re not, what’s the point? Why go out on a “limb”? Why embarrass yourself in front of your friends for it? Why not just say “Well, this was real, but I’m done now”? Why not just become SBNR and give up on all the work? It’s like it’s all I have these days, you know; I’m realizing how fragile this religious bubble is, and I’m starting to really despise that.

Dreaded questions

It’s that old problem again. I intellectualize things to the point of incomprehension, then at the time of truth I’m at a loss. Yesterday I went to the Catholic church with my friend. Afterwards, we went to my house so I could change my clothes, and while I was unbuttoning the top layer, she exclaimed, “No wonder you’re so hot; you’ve got on a hundred layers!” It’s true. Just to get the whole conversation out of the way, I pulled out my tzitzit strings, going, “Do you know what this is?” (Usually people, when pressed, do recognize them from those crazy Hareidi men—they never show the women’s side nor do they show normal people, in case you didn’t notice that—at the Kotel on TV, which is the only Jewish thing people see around here, probably.) She was shocked a little bit, going “Whoa! What’s that?” And I was like, “It’s a Jewish thing.” I explained that it’s supposed to like remind you of the commandments and so on, and she said, “Why can’t you just put it on a keychain? Why do the strings have to be so long?” etc.

I’m not good at answering these questions, frankly, so I showed her the passage in Numbers where it talks about it, and she said “This isn’t in the Bible, though, is it?” And I was like “Yeah, Christians don’t usually read this part.”

Anyway, she was rather accepting, and she didn’t mention it again. But it was still awkward and I don’t know why. Maybe because I do this sort of thing all the time, and if it’s not this, it’s cutting all my hair off or wearing glitter or whatever else I did in high school (back when you can actually get away with that stuff!) It just felt really stupid. I mean, she’s right, it is a weird thing to do. Especially here. Especially for a womyn. Especially when you have to hide it from your rabbi and your mother (who might have a heart attack because she thinks this is weird enough already).

I can argue all I want about the halacha of it, but once I’m out in the real world, I’m at a loss. I want to hide them most of the time, but then it makes me wonder why I’m doing it a little bit.

She also asked the dreaded Question™, which for the record is worse than my mom’s “Do you like boys?” interrogations all the time in high school. “Do you believe in God?” Just like last time she asked me, I said I don’t want to talk about it.

It makes me really uncomfortable.

Shabbat is sucking

This is the first time I’ve used my computer on Shabbat since, like, August. But this is getting really ridiculous. I still don’t get Shabbat. I wouldn’t be excited about sitting alone in my room without my computer or TV or listening to music or leaving the house for twenty-five hours on any other day; why should I be excited about it on Shabbat (and don’t even tell me I can walk someplace; I live flanked between two highways)? The only days that I can see any good in it is when I end up going to shul in the morning and then I can sleep from 1:30 to like 6:30 and then it’s over. And I only like that because it’s over quickly. It’s kind of sad.

The worst part about all this is that I give myself a guilt-trip all the time—”If you just cleaned the house and bought real food for Shabbat you’d have a better time.” “If you just hung out with your family like you’re supposed to, you’d have a better time.” “If you only made challah.” “If you’d only prepared things, like for an LSD trip.” Oh, I’ve tried all that. I’m a little tired of spending Shabbat with my anti-religious family who really just want to get on the couch to watch Chopped, so I don’t see any point in it lately.

This morning I woke up depressed and it went downhill from there (why yes, it is Saturday right now). I skipped Shaharit and tzitzit and went to Starbucks but then my sugar packet fell into my coffee, I spilled hot coffee on myself, couldn’t find an outlet, and had to drive all the way back home to go to the nearby Starbucks, which has an outlet. It was gross. It was like God was saying “OH NO YOU DON’T”. Yeah well, you know what? He is being just like the rabbi right now—making things so difficult yet not letting me work things out myself. What am I supposed to do, eh? Either way I lose. They say you shouldn’t focus on all the prohibitions of Shabbat, but when I don’t I’m so guilt-ridden I drop my sugar packet in my coffee.