Many people ask me about my experience with Chabad as though I were mysteriously and irreverently drawn into a cult; as though I were a typical southern California valley girl one day, and a long skirt wearing, Moshiach-spouting vessel the next. But as with most stories, and most of our collective lives, it's never that simple, is it.
It all began with a trip to Israel in my formative teen years with a summer youth group. It was innocent and full of wonder, replete with nights spent sleeping on the shores of the Kinneret; wandering the mystical Old City of Jerusalem; floating over the limestone by the Kotel like an angel finally anchored to heaven. I was 16, and somewhere in that summer, for the first time I began to feel something. Before that, Judaism had been tedious- I was forced to go to Hebrew school and often skipped classes because I couldn't stand the snobby, over-fed, spoiled Reform kids. I had a Bat Mitzvah and focued on the after-party, and impressing my friends. It never really meant anything, until I went to Israel. Everything made sense in Israel; the sand, sea, golden sunlight, olive trees, the Kibbutz, and the feeling I had when i was around a large group of Jews was unlike any other; I felt present and aware of the moment unlike any other time in my life. The energy, purpose, and history came together like an unshakeable trifecta of human identity and motion; and I was on the Ride, never to look back again. And sure enough, when I came home from Israel, symptoms of withdrawal shook me to my core and left everything plain, unmeaningful, unholy. So I tried, as hard as I could, to recreate Israel at home.
My opportunity to do so didn't arise until college. I remember sitting in a literary theory class, listening to a lecture on Nietzche by a rather frenzied and impatient Lit professor. "The Jews." He began, stopping for a moment, perhaps pondering how to proceed without making himself liability, or rendering himself politically incorrect, to any faction. "Nietzche was preoccuppied- rather,obsessed, if you will, by the Jews. He wrote endlessly of them; famously, he was considered an anti-semitic. But in reality, he was in awe of them, dumbfounded by their resilience and alienation of the nihilism that plagued him. And this was never more apparent than when he said: " The professor stopped short, as though gripped by the very obsession that possessed his subject. "Nietzche wrote that in history, it was not the Romans, as history believes, that won the War against the Hebrews. But rather, if one walks into any Cathedral in Rome, one is surrounded by Images of a Jew: Jesus. And all of Rome worships him, and prays to him as their Lord. Now you, dear citizens, tell me who won the war." I felt that feeling again when I heard this- the old feeling of longing for a home written in limestone, of longing for voices and faces recycled from those at Mt. Sinai. That collective, thing. Perhaps it was this feeling that drove me to Chabad on friday evenings, when Hillel failed to interest me (I wasn't interested in a meatmarket: I wanted to unlock the secret behind being Jewish.) And at one Chabad friday night dinner, the Rabbi, a young mystic and former Grateful Dead follower, saw right through me. "That thing," he began, "That fire, is called Pintele Yid." What's that? I asked, silently happy that someone could finally put it into words. "It's that spark inside a Jew that makes him different from everyone else, makes him shine. And it's what draws Jews to other Jews."
Of course, that was before Crown Heights; that was before the feelings of inferiority, outcast, and self-loathing; that was before. But tonight, as I dutifully sat through a friend's Christmas Eve dinner, my mind wandered over to that feeling again. That feeling, in isolation of all the nastiness, the judgment, the revenge, the minefield of guilt- there was an image of Judaism I fell in love with. Perhaps that image, that true spirit and learning and wisdom that really does separate Jewishness from other faiths, can exist. Perhaps it is so powerful, so intoxicating, that, like a drug, it can be used for the wrong purpose. Perhaps those people in Crown Heights, or any other insulated ultra-Orthodox community, misuse and abuse that powerful antidote, get high from it, and hurt themselves and eachother by interpreting and using it the wrong way. A drug can save lives; it can also kill. I'm not so sure I am ready to give up on that image, that "truth", that perhaps, on it's own two legs, would never have caused me pain for being a convert, or any of the pain any one of us has felt. I am still in awe of it, though- fascinated by the grasp it has over the human psyche, and the still trembling origins of its verse. Please, dear readers, give me your thoughts? Love, Mimi