I didn’t want to be “off the derech” but neither did I want to be “in the box”
As told to Chaya Baumwolspiner
My tichel and tzniyus clothing should have given it away, but it seemed it wasn’t enough. Even before we exchanged greetings, I felt the eyes of my former classmate bore in to the center of my face.
I knew at once what she was checking for, and a wave of smugness coursed through my veins.
She was looking for my nose piercings. But they were no longer there.
It’s Shabbos afternoon, and I’m wearing a floral maxi skirt, elbow length sleeves, and short socks as I head to the park with my friends. We’re joking and laughing, but really I’m mad inside. My clothes are long enough to pass the “tzniyus test,” but all I get are dirty looks from everyone I pass.
I’m sure there are girls in other communities who wear the type of clothing I do and no one complains. So what if I’m not wearing a classic black Shabbos skirt? All I’m doing is stretching the rules a bit; I’m not trying to break them. The people in this town are so-o-o extreme.
That was just the beginning. I never intended for it to go any farther than more colorful clothing and maybe slightly longer hair. I certainly didn’t want to drop out, and I had no reason to. I came from a loving home, achieved decent grades, and had a nice crowd of friends. I was a typical good girl.
Then things began to change. Only a few weeks into high school, it wasn’t hard to tell that the other good girls in my class were ignoring me. No more invitations to parties and get-togethers. No more shared study sessions or games of ball or seats reserved for me at the lunch table. A couple of my former friends even told me that their parents didn’t want them to spend time with me.
I’d become a pariah.
What had I done wrong? The only explanation I can come up with now — though I didn’t realize at the time — was that my older sister was struggling with Yiddishkeit and my friends’ parents were scared I’d take the same route.
Ironically enough, I’d done nothing to suggest that. I became a “bad influence” even before I’d taken a single step in the wrong direction.
It’s Shabbos again. I’ve just turned 16, and I’ve been stretching more rules. I eat the Shabbos seudah with my family — why not? — and then head to the park, where I meet up with my new friends. I never imagined I’d be friendly with the girls who everyone considers rebellious; you know, the type who test the teachers with the length of their school skirts and wear nail polish, even though they know they’ll have to remove it.
But who else should I hang out with? None of the regular crowd would deign to give me a smile; they think I’m a rebel, and I have a strong suspicion the teachers do too. Come to think of it, I’ve sort of grown into the part. My skirts are shorter — hmm, they’re short — and I’m wearing makeup on Shabbos. Funky makeup.
I tried to stay afloat. I wanted to be “good,” and though I wasn’t exactly like the good girls, I really believed in Hashem. Mitzvos were another thing, though. The kids I was socializing with weren’t all that careful and no one seemed to care; they were “rebels” after all.
Did Hashem care? I hoped He’d given me a carte blanche to take things easy because He knew I’d had a hard time with my old friends in school.
Another Shabbos. More stretching. A group of boys have joined us, and no one seems to think it’s wrong that we’re talking to boys.
One of the boys lights a cigarette and noisily inhales. I feel a flash of nausea, but everyone is cheering, so I cheer too, even though I’m uneasy. Things are going too far.
The surprising thing was, the more I got to know the “bad kids,” I found they weren’t all that bad. Nice kids really. They were struggling souls like me, each of us coping with our own demons, forced to bind in kinship because we weren’t wanted by anyone else.
If a teacher or a former friend had sincerely reached out to me and invited me back, I may have thought about backtracking. But no one reached out. When I continuously cut classes in 11th grade, I don’t remember a teacher ever sending someone to look for me as I wandered the hallways. When I finally dropped out of school in the middle of that year, the principal didn’t try to hold me back… I imagine she was glad to see me go.
It’s Friday night again. I eat at home and then join some friends at the movies. We go to a Wawa afterward, because we haven’t eaten since the seudah. I don’t order anything, because I’m still not officially eating treif. But when one of the boys asks if I want to share his sandwich, I gobble it down, and it’s delicious.
It’s not like I ordered it, after all.
As the months passed, the rationalization and the guilt receded, as did the last shreds of my mitzvah observance. I’d always told people I didn’t smoke, drink alcohol, or talk to boys, but one day I found myself with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other, making this virtuous pronouncement… to a boy.
We both laughed uproariously.
But the levity was skin-deep, covering up the deep wounds below, where I felt neither happiness nor satisfaction. If occasionally I heard a small inner voice telling me it was time to rethink my life, I soon quieted it. I was too filled with pain to think at all.
If you’d asked me where I was going in life, I probably would have said “nowhere.” In my mind, there was simply no path forward. I was powerless.
I spoke to Hashem, but could not connect to Him. Without mitzvos I didn’t have the tools for connection.
I skipped the Shabbos meal this week and I think I’m going to skip the park too, because it’s no longer fun. A few of the boys and girls have married each other and don’t come anymore. A small number go back to yeshivos and seminary. And those who are smoking the hard stuff have simply disappeared.
I never want to marry one of the boys from the park because I know they’re in a bad place, even though I know I am too. Would I ever marry? Would I ever have a home of my own? And if I won’t … then what?
I languish in my bed, day after day. There isn’t a difference between Shabbos and weekdays any more.
It seems that everyone’s moving on, for better or worse. When will it be my turn?
Miraculously, my time to move on did arrive, gradually, almost imperceptibly. My return to Yiddishkeit was as incremental as my defection, and just as unplanned. As my turbulent teens gave way to my more tolerant twenties, I began to feel an irresistible urge to change. Not big changes, not fast changes, but a slow, slow process of taking pigeon steps toward Hashem.
Where the therapists had failed, maturity was kicking in.
Months have passed and I’m still barely “into” Shabbos. I go to a music festival with a friend dressed in jeans and a tank-top, and don’t feel out of place. But when there’s an intermission, I excuse myself and find a corner to daven Minchah.
I feel good. I’m eons from being a stereotypical frum Jew, and have no intentions of becoming one; even so, I feel my davening matters to Hashem. I don’t keep many mitzvos, but He’s happy with the ones I do. It’s no longer “all or nothing…” I’m not a bad person because I’m not holding by “all.”
As mitzvos became an increasing part of my life, I was forced to face a new question. I was no longer a rebel but who was I? Not an aspiring Bais Yaakov girl; there were piercings on my nose and I liked them. The Yiddishkeit I grew up with was far too full of constraints to entice me. I needed to find a way to be a real Jew and still be “me.”
I didn’t want to be “off the derech” but neither did I want to be “in the box.”
While others have insisted that I go to Neve Yerushalayim to “re-frum,” my wise mother knows better. In all the years, she’s never told me to leave home, even though I gave her a grueling time. But now, as the tide is turning, she realizes I need to go away to discover my true path.
She encourages me to spend some time in Eretz Yisrael where I have cousins that range from Dati Leumi to Yerushalmi. There I’ll see that there is one Torah but many types of Torah Jews. I book a ticket for a year, and in the time I’m there I get to see a wide panorama of wonderful people, so different and yet so similar. I ask a Mizrachi cousin how he identifies and he tells me “as a Jew.” I am inspired by his refreshing response.
I speak to Chassidim, old-time Yerushalmim, and new baalei teshuvah. They lead rich, fulfilled lives; they’re comfortable in their skin, comfortable to be Jews. I wonder if I can find a place among them.
After six months, however, I realize that of all the people I meet, the hashkafos and the mindset closest to mine are those of my family and community. I decide to cut my stay short. It’s been a long, long journey, and while I don’t look exactly like my family, and never will, I know it’s time to go home.
When I was a young girl, no one dreamed I’d ever leave the right path. When I was a bona fide drop out, no one dreamed I’d come back. And yet I did, eventually marrying and building a family with a special young man, whose travels in life were not unlike mine, albeit on a different continent and under different circumstances.
I thank Hashem for bringing me back to His Torah and for granting me parents who made this possible. Our ties were stretched, but never broken. They showed me their unconditional love and concern, even in the roughest times, and kept the door open for my return.
My journey isn’t over and neither do I want it to be. I recently heard in the name of Rabbi Benzion Klatzko that “Judaism is not a religion, but a connection.” I look forward to a lifetime of deepening my connection with Hashem, a process that has no end.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 744)
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