| Words Unspoken |

Dear Friend…

“I wish I could present myself as I am without feeling ashamed of something that’s really not shameful at all”


Dear Friend,

I’ve been Torah-observant for over 20 years. As any baal teshuvah knows, the transition from one worldview to another is an intense and all-consuming upheaval — even for someone like me, who never quite found her footing in the secular world. And although I appreciate that you value my decision and self-sacrifice — at least in theory — you’ll never really grasp how the nuances of my choice to commit myself to a Torah lifestyle influence my life in an ongoing way, even decades later.

In any new social setting (since I have no personal mesorah to rely on), I’m scanning for unspoken cues. At the girls’ school, makeup is expected. At the cheder, it’s considered too modern. At shul, either is fine. What style of dress? What colors? What topics of conversation? A newcomer entering the frum world walks through life like a minesweeper, constantly checking for potential pitfalls and challenges in day-to-day interactions.

You can’t imagine how many details there are to pick up. I cringe when I hear overconfident baalei teshuvah getting it wrong — like the smiling newlywed who announced proudly to a group of women, “I just got up from sheva brachos.” Even the ubiquitous and seemingly benign Jewish geography conversation is a hazard for baalei teshuvah who may not want to share their background with someone they’ve only just met, because how can they possibly not know the Goldbergs?! Rabbi Goldberg raised thousands of dollars for the new shul, and his wife does so much chesed in the community!

I don’t blame you for not getting it; you grew up in this world and can’t imagine anything else. By “you,” of course, I don’t mean you, personally; I mean “you,” the frum world as a whole, which gives us newcomers big smiles of welcome — at the same time that you don’t want us to marry into your families. You, who speak in glowing generalities about the neshamos of Klal Yisrael who are coming back, but aren’t quite sure how to actually have a conversation with us that goes deeper than superficial chitchat. I’m not naive or stupid. I understand the challenges, and you’re rightfully cautious of the influences we grew up with that, undetected, could seep into our families and compromise Torah values. I don’t blame you for wanting to be careful.

It’s just that I came back to Yiddishkeit because I craved authenticity. It was an overwhelming relief to finally find a tradition — my own, no less! — that exemplified truth in every aspect. So it’s kind of ironic that I have to hide my identity card now that I’ve finally arrived. Everyone knows it’s verboten to bring up one’s background as a baal teshuvah. The unspoken rule is “don’t ask, don’t tell.” So in this community that’s committed to clarity and truth, the unfortunate result is that I generally need to speak in veiled references or vague implications when talking about my past.

There’s a part of me that resents always having to be the one seeking to fit in, to get it right, to adjust this or that nuance of behavior, to measure up to your standards. I wish I could present myself as I am without feeling ashamed of something that’s really not shameful at all. I wish you could interact with me honestly and feel comfortable asking me questions out of a genuine desire to get to know me (instead of a kind of spiritual voyeurism, in the way that a chavrusa of my friend’s husband once approached him with a grin: “Tell me about all the aveiros you used to do!”). I wish you trusted my sincerity and commitment. I wish I didn’t feel I constantly have to prove my worthiness to you — you who are only standing where you are now because your grandparents happened to be born into a different environment.

It’s taken me a long time to embrace my personal journey and not to feel lacking around you. I can finally see the richness I’ve gained from my path — a yichus of unique sensitivities and capabilities that I wouldn’t trade for all the pious, long-bearded Zeidies in the world. I only wish that you could openly see that and admire that, too.

With hope and respect,

Another Member of the Tribe


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 881)

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