Like most kabbalos in my life, it started with great expectations, but in the back of my head I didn’t really expect much of it
September of 2008. The weather is perfect — not too hot, not too cold. The school year has just begun, so you haven’t given up yet, and your new shoes are still shiny and worth it, despite the break-in blister.
I’d just started my second year of teaching at Masores High School. I was 20. The world was my oyster, and I was going to be a teacher, then a principal, then open my own school, as well as become a rebbetzin (yeah, I know, I never got past the first stage — don’t rub it in).
A day or so after Rosh Hashanah, after picking up a fresh stash of books I had on hold from the library, I walked to work, up East 16th and along Avenue I to Ocean Avenue. As I walked, a thought meandered into my brain. Rosh Hashanah has just passed. I should probably take something on for Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
I thought of where I’d just come from, and of the person I planned on being in the future. They weren’t entirely compatible. Rebbetzins reading Chick-Lit? Kinda nisht. So just for this Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, I wouldn’t read novels. It was just for then, because really, I was an English teacher, how could I not read novels?
I thought of the book I had in my bag, a newish novel. I’d waited a little while for it to come through the hold system. I could wait just a little longer. Maybe.
Like most kabbalos in my life, it started with great expectations, but in the back of my head I didn’t really expect much of it.
Quickly, though, I ran into a problem. What would I read? Because not reading at all wasn’t an option. I decided, just for Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, that I’d keep it super kosher, and did a chazarah of Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s Living Inspired and Worldmask.
It worked, and after Yom Kippur, I felt cleansed, maybe a little holy. Future Rebbetzin Esther was proud. I wondered how long I could keep it up.
I have a competitive streak, so I laid down some ground rules. I was boycotting non-Jewish fiction, but I could still read nonfiction and classics. The light comedy book waited patiently in my bag. I renewed it; I was going to read it, eventually.
I dove into the world of nonfiction. I was into politics back then, so I read all the political books. Then I shifted to history. There was a point where I went through the biographies, starting from A. I didn’t get very far with that. I read the biography of Kareem Abdul Jabar (a basketball player, for those who don’t know — I certainly didn’t then) and thought, “that was boring.” I switched to the social sciences, they’d always fascinated me — and still do.
I read a lot of classics that I’d normally have no patience for (Russian classics anyone? I mean, they’re amazing, but did you see how fat it is, and how small the print is?).
There were excruciating moments of temptations. I was in the middle of multiple series and the next books came out. Baruch Hashem, all the Harry Potters were out already, or this kabbalah wouldn’t have had a chance. I passed those challenges by taking a leaf out of AA — one day at a time, and counting each day. There was no way I was breaking my streak six months in. If If I mentioned it to anyone, I always described this kabbalah as temporary. (I usually didn’t talk about it, because again, English teacher not reading, fiction writer not reading — would you trust her? I wouldn’t.)
My 12th grade Chumash teacher, Rebbetzin Wolpin, had told my class she’d given up fiction years ago. I remember thinking it was crazy to deprive yourself like that, that it was impossible. Among the aspirations I had for myself, it wasn’t even something I wanted to want.
She also told us how she did it. In the summer, she had one of those Reader’s Digest condensed novels next to her bed, just in case. But just in case never came. It sounded ridiculous to me, but there I was, three years later, playing similar mind games.
And “temporary” lasted a long, long time. Over a decade.
I started inching back into fiction a few years back. You can judge me if you’d like, but I thought the stories I was writing were lacking because I wasn’t reading more.
And still, I don’t really read fiction. I don’t know how to navigate a bookshelf of novels anymore. Rows and rows of fiction in the library overwhelm me. I don’t know how to judge a book by its cover. So I don’t.
The only fiction I read are books that are recommended to me, and I’ll only read it after harassing the recommender about the appropriateness of it.
I know, I know, I’m so not the type.
But I guess I am.
C’mon, I once aspired to be a rebbetzin.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 758)
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