Monday, December 14, 2009

Falling Off Which Wagon? Mimi's Story

The Hardest Part

Today, as I was napping on the Q train to Brooklyn, holding my boyfriend's hand, a lubavitcher approached us. I heard him talking to Joe*, my boyfriend, and I, curious, opened an eye. The young lubav was talking about Hanukkah and handing over a pamphlet about the prayers, etc. I, of course, still haunted, curious, and a little vengeful, started in.

Me: Do you live in Crown Heights?

Young Lubav: Yes, have you ever been?

Me: (all-knowing snicker) Yes, I used to live there actually. You learn at Ohalei Torah Yeshiva?

Young Lubav: (looking confused as his eyes pass over my tight pants and obvious non-frum appearance) Oh, so you were there, for a shabbaton or something?

Me: (go for the jugular) Actually, I used to study at **** yeshiva in Crown Heights. Do you know Rabbis X, Y, and Z? They taught there.

Young Lubav: (Looking very peaked and pale) what happened?

Me: guess you can say I sort of fell off the wagon.

Then, something astonishing: Me and Young Lubav exchange knowing glances. He sees a little bit of awe and eagerness still in me. He, being raised in the secrets and methods of outreach, starts in. "You should come back to Crown Heights sometime. Maybe for Yeshivacation."

Of course, I would have thought that such a suggestion would make me keel over. Sickened. But instead, memories came flooding back. Memories of the intensity of learning, the dim shabbos tables overflowing with delicious food, the fervor and fire of Chassidus learning. The simplicity of a life stripped of choice and confusion. Going back didn't seem so bad.

My memories of being in a chassidic community are mixed: Some fuzzy, some non-existant, some wonderful, and some utterly devastating. Its mostly the feeling of loving something so much, and then being rejected by its tenets.

For me, my whole world came crashing down when I was just 22. I had only been in Yeshiva a few weeks, when during a class, the teacher, a reknowned Rabbi, spoke about how Reform Judaism accepts those with only a Jewish father as still Jewish. He banged on the table, his gray eyes like electric steel under his tipped black hat. "It's ridiculous, the notion. The Torah clearly states that Jewishness comes from a Jewish mother. If your mother isn't Jewish, you're not Jewish." I walked out of class, breathless. What did that mean for me? Where did that leave me? I decided to speak to the head Rabbi of the yeshiva.

I remember waiting outside his office, wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirt and a long denim skirt. I wasn't frightened of his reaction, he had seemed like such a warm and caring person. I was sure there was a solution to my problem. After all, I was raised Jewish! Judaism was all I had ever own. Any issue with my mother was just a technicality. I was sure that was how he would see it.

Ultimately, as you can imagine, that wasn't how he saw it. He stroked his beard and looked down for a good few minutes, and he kept saying, "thats a problem," in a low whisper. He wouldn't look at me. I began to realize maybe I should have kept silent- but I was convinced that there was nothing to keep silent about. It was something out of my control. My intentions were right.

Wrong. Shortly thereafter, I was told I would have to move out of the dorm as "non Jews" were not allowed to live there. I, in too much shock and disarray, quickly found some roommates to live with, after "disclosing" my status. I was promised help with converting from the yeshiva, and told I could still attend classes. On shabbat, however, I would have to inform any families I ate with that I was a non-Jew, as they had to use a special wine intended for non-Jews. Not a problem, right? I did as I was told- mainly because I wanted to follow the rules. Not following the rules could mean I wasn't Jewish, and even though I felt Jewish, that wasn't enough. I wasn't ready to face questioning the only identity I had ever known, and had inspired me to take this journey in the first place. Besides, conversion seemed like just a piece of paper, something to quickly get out of the way.

Over the next few months, a process of degradation and dissemination of my being and sense of self took place to a degree which I am only now, five years later, beginning to understand.

I visited a slew of Chassidic Rabbis who were known for "converting." The first lived in a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, and said he would do it quickly if I paid him $900. Sensing something wrong, and wanting to do It the right way, I decided against using him. Surprise surprise, a few months later he was caught in some fraudulent activities and de-Rabbied. It was all over the Brooklyn papers.

I moved on to the next rabbi, who was not Chabad. He was nice, but he was against Chabad and he insisted I move out of Crown Heights. I had had enough moving to suit myself, and so, I went to one final Rabbi, who was Chabad friendly and his conversions were accepted in Israel, meaning if I ever chose to do aaliyah, I could do so as a Jew.

The new Rabbi had a shul in the upper west side and getting there from Crown Heights took over an hour. But he was good-our sessions consisted of actual learning and testing, and he sent me away the required three times before he converted me. It took a full year before he finally converted me. I memorized a lot of history, prayers, and traditions, and had to answer random questions fired at me from three rabbis. Once I had satisfied their questioning, I had to remove my clothes and dip myself three times in a mikvah, similar to how household appliances are "kashered." And, the rabbis had to watch. They had a little window to see my head dunk-they wouldn't see my body. Only the mikvah lady saw that. I remember the smell the mikvah, a seemingly bottomless, murky green pool that was a small square but very deep. I remember thinking, I am finally Jewish. I finally have my papers. I returned to crown heights that day and went to the yeshiva, where all the girls and the rabbis were eating lunch. But I didn't feel like telling anyone about the conversion. Not after what the last year had been like.

I had been raised by my father as Jewish. My mother, though not Jewish, died when I was younger and I had never really known her. My father, a conservative Jew, sent me to hebrew school, Jewish summer camps, and Israel when I was a sophomore in high school. During college, I went to Hillel and found it a glorified frat house. That led me to Chabad, and soon, I was frequenting the local Shliach's house every friday night. It was a wonderful place, that Shliach's house. His relationship with his wife and kids were so holy. The Rabbi's children were so knowledgeable about Judaism at such young ages. I used to joke with my friend David, who came with me to shabbat dinners, that the children knew enough to run a Jewish household.

After graduating college I decided to move to New York and finally be a part of a real Jewish community, as I had never experienced anything other than a reform synagogue in a mostly non-Jewish west coast town. I applied to a yeshiva in Crown Heights and arrived shortly before my 23rd birthday. I remember wearing a long skirt for the first time and visiting 770 on my first night in New York, with some girls from the Yeshiva. It was an icy night in February, and growing up in California, the snow on the ground just added to the magic of the whole experience. 770 glowed under the lamplight like an ethereal castle, its' windows dimly lit and foggy. I remember that I hardly felt the cold at all. Now, five years later, I can barely walk down the street in February without ducking into stores to warm up.

Classes and the dorm of the yeshiva were challenging, intense, and full of eager women such as myself who had grown up without a formal orthodox Jewish education. I was expected to follow every rule from the get-go, and for a laid-back west coast girl, that was hard. All the papers! From modei aniin the morning to prayers right before bedtime, it was a lot to learn. since I lived in the dorm, I had to fully keep shabbat as well. During the first few weeks, I would sneak phone calls in to my father during shabbat, just to let him know I was alright. One shabbat I had strep and a 104 degree fever, but the dorm mother would not let me call hatzoloh or go to the hospital. I was later told by several physicians that the situation could have been dangerous. Perhaps that should have been the first red flag of utter dogmatic inflexibility.

During the year I was converting, after I moved out of the yeshiva, I still lived in Crown Heights and attended shabbat and holiday meals at the homes of chabad families. I always had to inform them beforehand of my status. A few times, I was asked to wait outside their house during a shabbat meal for the wine and bread prayers, as they didnt want to recite them in front of a non-Jew. Thinking back, I should have just turned around and left. Or told them off. Or said something. But my voice had run dry. I kept thinking, once I am a real Jew, I will be accepted. A lot of the time I felt like Pinnochio, my favorite story as a child. Just as Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy, I wanted to be a real Jew. So I tolerated it, the ridicule, humiliation, and listening to endless lectures in yeshiva about how non-Jews don't go to heaven, and become slaves in the world to come. I had no voice to talk back. I just listened. I wanted very much to be accepted by this world, this wonderful, energetic, and magical world of Judaism that somehow seemed to indispensable to me.

I finally told a Rebbetzin who was a very sweet and loving woman, and also ran the Yeshiva, that I was finally converted. She hugged me and cried, and said, "finally." Yes. Now I could be like everyone else.

I moved back into the dorm and began dating. Now I could marry and live like all my other classmates, most of whom had married during that year and even had children. I found that I was only set up with converts or men who were much beneath me in education and other facets. I asked the matchmakers (shadchanim) and I was told, over and over, that not everyone was OK with dating a convert. I decided to try and meet orthodox guys who were not Chabad, thinking the dissatisfaction with converts was an overly sensitive characteristic of a chassidic community.

Wrong, again! Most observant men I dated after my conversion would end the relationship after they found out that I was a convert. This led me to try and hide the fact of my conversion, which led to one final heartbreak. I fell in love, dated a man for six months, and as I sensed things getting very serious, I told him about the conversion. I had hoped that his deep feelings for me would break through any bias he may have. And it did! He was upset at first that I hadn't told him, but he said he loved me and just wanted to "check my papers." I gave him my conversion papers, and he took them to his mother and they went to speak with a Rabbi about me.

Thats when things turned terribly wrong. I got a phone call from him, in tears. His mother didn't want him to marry a convert. What if the kids didn't come out Jewish? and worst of all, what would the community think? I didn't know how to answer. I remember holding the phone, and thinking I was living a wretched nightmare. It was over, and I was devastated.

I'm sure that living for years, feeling that something is wrong with you, that you have a disclosure to make to every possible romantic partner, can cast a shadow over your life and probably really wreck your self esteem. You think? But I didn't get it yet. It took a few more knock.

I decided that I would get nowhere with dating and living in Crown Heights. After much begging, pleading, and endless worried conversations with my father, I followed my goal of going to law school and began preparing to take the LSATS. This was strongly discouraged and looked down upon by the Crown Heights community. I was babysitting for money and not really doing anything with my life, so I kept my LSAT prep a secret, and studied as hard as I could, pouring all my pent up frustration into it. I did well, and got into my top law school choice, a school in manhattan. A few short months later, I had my things packed, a proud dad, and a new law school dorm room to move into in the heart of downtown New York City. Culture shock, anyone?

Transitioning to a secular and challenging environment, such as law school, and living in Manhattan, was hard. I felt lonely. I missed the predictability and routine of my life in an Orthodox community. But I knew deep down that I had been let down, that I had been cheated, in some way. I knew that all I had now was what I made for myself, not what some outside thing- be it religion, Crown Heights, a great Jewish guy- could provide for me. I began to get my voice back, and slowly stopped being observant, making friends, going to parties, and living a "normal" life. But I was always haunted and full of guilt when I wore short sleeves, ate non kosher food, and broke a rule. It never left me. But I felt so wronged- I was led to believe one thing, had worked hard, sacrificed my self and my self worth, only to work up to a point of inferiority. I was angry.

Today I am working as an attorney, have a wonderful boyfriend, and am not observant. I learned a while ago that the original Shliach that "got me" in college is also no longer observant. I also frequently hear about horror stories from Chassidic communities. I have worked to a point where I can somewhat enjoy my life and my Jewish identity, but I still feel pangs of terror and dread at the mention of a shabbat dinner. That dreaded feeling of having something terribly wrong with you, of accepting that you are inferior. Perhaps the greatest crime against the human soul.

Which leads me to answer the often asked question: Why did you stop being frum? Why do you care what other people think?

Just like I made a choice to convert because I couldn't bear to lose my "identity" of being Jewish, I chose not to be frum because I would not accept an identity that was inherently inferior. Meaning, I made a choice: Live a frum life and always feel like I had something wrong with me (aka being a convert, etc) or live a life that judged me by my merits, and not what my parents did or did not do. And there are plenty of reasons for feeling "inferior" in frum communities- they could fill books with the amount of stigmas!

So as much as I loved the observant community, I guess, ultimately, I lovedme more. And I am still looking for a way to practice pure Judaism in happiness.



1 comment:

  1. Mimi you're fantastic, I am so thrilled to hear that you went on to university and became an attorney and have a normal life. mazal tov. I am glad you love yourself enough to do that, I somehow misplaced my self worth and replaced it with everyone's opinion of me, a convert with a blemish...

    I was also discouraged about going to university, I went anyhow. I also have been made to feel inferior. It turns out now, I look down on them and they look down on me...yet that still does not give me the option of finding someone at my level in many aspects.

    I wonder what the next step will be. I will remember your lines: I would not accept an identity that was inherently inferior.

    Thank you.

    sdebeau atyahoodotcom