| Family First Feature |

The Inside World

As I applied makeup in Estonia, it came to me: Judaism is my truth

As told to Rivka Streicher by Leah Peleg


"What do you want to do?”

I was 16, in a religious studies class in a non-Jewish school in the English village of Marchwood, when the question burst out of me. There were only a few of us in the class — in the fifth form we could choose between history, geography, and religious studies. I chose the latter; my mom was a deeply spiritual person, even though we weren’t Jewish, and didn’t align ourselves with any particular religion.

That day we were talking about our vision for our futures, and the girl sitting next to me said, “I want to be a mom…”

I looked at her and blinked. What?

She said, “Yeah, well what do you want to do?”

That was one time I realized I didn’t want to — could not — follow the mainstream. Just get into one relationship and then another and another and somewhere along the way have a family?

I grew up in a society with little commitment. All the relationships I knew had dissolved: my parents were divorced, my grandma was on her third marriage. There were no healthy, stable relationships in my upbringing. Why would I want that? To me, getting married meant breaking up some time on. Did I want to bring children into a world like that?

“I don’t know,” I said to my friend in that small classroom. “For now, I want to learn about the world…”

That year, I left home right after finishing school. This isn’t a story of faulting my family or my upbringing. On the contrary, I have the most supportive, loving family and they would’ve given everything for me to stay. Running away was me seeking independence, was trying to find myself, because ultimately my soul belonged somewhere else.


Among the Zombies

I moved to Ireland. I was drawn to holistic therapy and alternative medicine and started studying. At the same time, I was making good money working in event design. I had a circle of friends, we were holidaying, having fun. It looked like I had it all.

But inside I was in pain. I’d walk to work in the morning and see all these people hurrying along, heads bent low. These aren’t real people. They’re zombies, dolls, dead. This cannot be life, if this is life, I don’t want it.

I had little self-esteem, I was seeking approval outside of myself. I was so often uptight, trying to control my life and the people in it. I didn’t know who I was as a woman in this post-modern world. Through the suppression of emotion and the pain inside, I developed physical pains; IBS, cramps, and the worst, endometriosis. When I went to the doctor, described my symptoms and spoke a little about my life, he said, “I think you need to be signed off work for depression. Go home, take some time off, see if you feel better.”

That was a slap in the face. Me? Was I one of those zombies too?

It seemed a bitter laugh. My mom had always been a spiritual, “sixth sense” kind of person. Her truisms spoke to me, she lived by something higher, and my childhood had been incredibly spiritual, almost mystical. But I, I was still struggling with feeling meaningless? To the point of depression?

When I was sent home by the doctor, I knew I couldn’t stay in Ireland; I needed more than abstract spirituality. And so I started my travels; went to the East. First to Nepal, then to India, desperately trying to come in alignment with myself, whoever she was.

In India, I rented a motorbike. Ms. Independent wanted to get around that huge, peopled land by herself. I crossed great swaths of arid earth, I’d look out at the raw, angry beauty, and feel so small. I didn’t know G-d but I knew Someone, Something was there. What do you want from me? I cried out. It was me on my bike, and I nullified myself to Him. I didn’t know where to go, what to do next. It was a low, but maybe a high as well. Out there, I prayed to be a vessel to G-d. To let His Voice and Will guide me.


Being and Receiving

As I groped through the East, I came upon an island community of spiritually-minded people in Thailand. There was no “working” as such, this was a complete shunning of the Western way of life. This was sand and ocean and coconuts, and the focus was on being; enhanced studying, and courses in yoga and meditation. Serious yoga, for hours. Stretch and bend and reach and grasp. Where to? Who knew?

It was about slowing down, being. I tried to quiet thoughts of goals, and focus on the endless process. In many ways life on the island was a dream. It was liberating, I learned a lot of skills and started to imbibe a different, realer culture. This was the East, this wasn’t the world of modern equality, and over there, some immutable truths were able to filter in.

One time, I was teaching a yoga class, and one of the other male instructors who was there said to me, “I’ll put the mats away for you at the end of class.”

The mats were heavy and large, but I looked at him in horror.  As ever, I was fiercely independent. “What? Why? I don’t need help, I can do it myself.”

“Just let me help you. What you need is to be able to ask for help. To receive help.”

That was my first awareness of the feminine quality of receiving.

I went back to my bungalow and thought: Why do I think it’s weak to ask for help? What’s wrong with me? How had Western culture given rise to these warped ideas about equality? The other instructor was stronger, he could help me. I could accept his help. That was a huge shift for me.

After a few months on the island, I thought I’d go visit my family for a bit.

I landed in England. People were rushing, coming and going from work. I knew this, I’d done this too, this superficiality, the pursuit of things, just going and working and living for the weekends. I knew it, and I recoiled from it. I cried myself to sleep. I felt so alone.

I just need to get back to the island, I thought. I spoke with my mom, but she said I’d only be more confused by going back.

But I was all set to attend a course on mystical dance, using movement as a form of healing, getting people comfortable in their bodies. Of course I was going back.

As ever, Mom was right. I stepped back onto the island. I took in the little huts, the people stretching in the dawning light. And I saw through it. What are these people doing? Was this really truth? Weren’t they running away from life as well? It was suddenly clear that there was so much ego in it, so much self-serving gain.

I knew I had to leave. I cried and cried. I had no home, not in England, and not in this spiritually enlightened island community.

My next stop was India again. I met some Israelis, friends of a friend. We exchanged pleasantries; they were a blur of faces and names. David, Eitan, Assaf.

I arrived in Rishikesh, India, a revered pilgrimage destination for the “holy” Ganges River that runs through it. In the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, it’s known as the “Gateway to the Garhwal Himalayas” and the “Yoga Capital of the World.”

At one point I noticed a specific building on the same street as our rental. We passed it tens of times, and each time I felt drawn to that innocuous building. Cows roamed the streets, incense and meditative music filled the air, but somehow what stood out for me was that building.

One day my friend said to me, “What’s up with you? What’s your thing with this place? For heaven’s sake, maybe just go inside?”

I found out that it was a Jewish “temple” — what was called a Chabad House, but I felt like I couldn’t enter. In a physical sense it was guarded by policemen, which wasn’t unusual. In India, every bank has a policeman outside. But that crazily-attuned sixth sense — the one I’d got from my mom and ramped up the volume on — felt that this place had a certain protection, that it was guarded and special and not just anyone could get in.

Eventually I went back to England. I’d found a lot in the East, in terms of holistic healing and a different way of being, but I’d also found so many holes, so much emptiness at the core. A deeply disillusioned young woman stepped off the plane. I knew I wouldn’t feel “home,” I couldn’t feel settled.

Throughout this time, and always really, Mom was wonderful. She loved me and wanted the best for me. The next step had to come from me.


I’m a Jew

Assaf, one of the Israeli guys whom I’d met at the tail end of my stint in tropical Thailand, got in touch. He was running a weeklong couple’s retreat of yoga and inner-healing in Estonia, in Eastern Europe, and wanted to know if I could lead the dance and movement classes for the women.

I didn’t really know the guy. I’d seen him briefly but couldn’t even recall what he looked like. But I said I’d join. I was seeking any opportunity to share my passion for spirituality and awakening femininity in women.

Two days in and the retreat was starting to work its magic. Participants grew quiet and thoughtful and floaty. Assaf and I were speaking a lot to plan and discuss the program. We hadn’t known each other before, but we were working well together, there was this chemistry between us right from the start.

Assaf was Jewish, but he wasn’t religious. He was at the very beginning of his own journey as a baal teshuvah, though I didn’t know this at the time, and even if I would’ve, I wouldn’t have known what it meant.

One morning before we left for the retreat center, Assaf said, “I gotta go, just something Jewish I need to do. Don’t wait for me.”

I pressed him: “What Jewish thing?”

Turns out it was tefillin that he’d been putting on every day for a while.

I wandered off to get ready for the evening’s dance session. The retreat was located on an old, beautiful estate. The restroom area was built over a large, ancient well, covered in glass. My mom used to say that she often got insights while applying lipstick and rouge, and it was there, at the sinks and mirrors, while I was putting on makeup, that the penny dropped.

I stood there, looked at myself in the mirror, and I knew. That’s it, I’m a Jew.

Not I’m going to be a Jew, or I want to be a Jew. Just I’m a Jew.

I felt my body relaxing, falling into the conviction.

I didn’t say anything to anyone. I continued giving the dance and movement sessions. A couple days later I was talking to Assaf, when he suddenly, randomly looked at me and said, “You know, I would marry you if you were a Jew.”

Then he shook his head as if to say where on earth did that come from? And it was the strangest thing, completely subconscious, unprompted by anything we were doing. I was the girl who told my classmates that I would never get married. He was almost completely secular and eons away from marriage and commitment. The remark was bizarre. He waved his hand dismissively and gave me this sheepish look, but in my mind, while I should’ve thought him and his comment wildly off the mark, all I could think was of course.

I came back home after the week, and hung around the house, mulling over the revelation I’d had, what to do about it. I didn’t breathe a word to Mom. But she knows things, has her instinct, her radar, and she turned to me and said, “You’re going to be a Jew.”

I looked at her wonderingly, and nodded.

“Do you know what it means? What you need to do to convert?”

I had no idea, but I looked up some rabbis, and just like that I started the process. I knew so strongly that it was what I had to do.

I was in contact with Assaf mostly regarding work, but there was still that connection between us. He was on his own gradual journey, growing more religious, and one day he said, “Listen, we gotta leave this. We can’t happen. You’re not a Jew.”

I hadn’t told him of my moment in Estonia. Or that I’d contacted the London Beis Din and had started to learn about Judaism.

I just said, “Well, I’m going to be a Jew.”

“What?” he spluttered. “It won’t be valid if you’re doing it for me.”

“For you?” I was shocked. “You think you’re that amazing? I hardly know you. You think I’m going to change my whole life for you? I’m doing it for myself.”

Assaf was floored. He started to throw out a whole bunch of halachos at me to see if I was serious. “You’re going to have to dress completely modestly. If you marry, you’ll have to cover your hair, etc.”

He was trying to push me to the wall. But there in the corner I found myself.

“Right,” I said. “Right, that sounds good.”

To cover my body, my hair, to be able to be me. To be in just one committed relationship.

“You’re coming from a completely different world; how could you be good with all this?”

But I was. Intuitively it all made sense. At the core, my soul was asking for permission to contain myself and be feminine in the only way that’s genuine.

At one point, Assaf came to England, and I was set to spend that weekend with my dad. It was the first time my dad was meeting Assaf. Assaf had been keeping Shabbos for a while, and we decided this would be the first time we’d keep Shabbos together. While my dad knew I was in the process of converting to Judaism, now we were springing Shabbos on him.

I was full of tension. I had so many questions about trying to keep Shabbos, and I didn’t want to be too weird in front of Dad. But the minute Shabbos came in, it was like vamoose, everything disappeared. No doubts, no tension, I was just there, present.

On Shabbos morning, I sat in the garden reading out loud from a transliterated Hebrew-English printout of Shacharis. I didn’t understand what I was saying, but I kept going, the sounds strange and comforting at once. Assaf couldn’t believe it. Later he said that seeing me there sitting for hours, reading something I didn’t know, gave him a jolt about where he really was with this whole teshuvah thing

When Shabbos ended, the whole world came flooding back in. I knew I was in a tight spot. I was facing obstacles with the conversion process in England. On top of that, my mom thought, okay, so I’d become a Jew, but couldn’t I settle down at the same time? We’d long had a plan of opening a wellbeing center as a business venture together. To that end, I was supposed to train for a specific certification as a yoga instructor.

But right then it hit me. I didn’t want to do the training now. I was 26 years old and it felt like I’d waited my lifetime to become a Jew. What I wanted to do pronto was go to Israel to study Torah.

My mom was upset, and worse, she was hurt. She felt she’d given me so much spirituality, she’d taught me so much by being the attuned, open person she was. She felt betrayed, as if what she’d imparted, the person she essentially was, was somehow wrong. I had to explain that it wasn’t, far from it. But for me, it simply didn’t go deep enough.

At that point there was really no other option for me. I was davening three times a day. I was keeping as much as I could. The level of my commitment — so far, so fast — was almost irrational, but all the same, there was a sense that my soul was recognizing this way of being, as if this was innately who I was.

I signed up for a conversion program in Israel, and I was off.


Coming Home

There were high points. I remember the drive from Ben Gurion airport, the relatively unexciting scenery, and the feeling that welled up inside me. I’m home, I’m home. I’d been to 40 different countries, I’d seen the Himalayas, the most awesome of vistas, but I’d never felt this. The peace of coming home.

At the same time, this period was excruciatingly hard. I was learning Torah in a midrashah, and that was amazing, but I knew few people in the country, and I had little money. This was the real emunah testing ground.

At one point I was cleaning houses, something I never thought I’d have to do. What was astonishing to discover was that I’d come to a place of such humility, it didn’t really matter. I didn’t feel like a poor person, I felt like I was in His Hands. One day, on the way home from a job, I realized I’d lost the 100 shekels I’d just earned washing dishes and floors in someone’s house. When I couldn’t find it, there was a fleeting feeling of disappointment, but I remember thinking, I guess the person who found it needed it more than I did.

I’d gone from rationalization and needing to know everything to this freedom. But it was an ongoing journey. And the hardest part, where it felt Hashem was literally smashing me down, was in the actual process of conversion. Three times the Beis Din pushed off my appointment. I was doing everything, eating kosher, dressing modestly, living in every way like a religious person, and each time they pushed me off, it created this emotional turmoil. Who am I? Would I ever get there?

Finally, I converted with the Beis Din in Bnei Brak. At the time I lived in Bat Ayin, in the Judean hills. I remember the bus journey back from Bnei Brak; as the hills came into view, I felt in a visceral way, this is my land, my people walked here. I spoke to Hashem, and I felt like something between us — something I hadn’t even noticed before, like a sheer curtain — had been lifted. It was straight connection.

I called Assaf. I said, “Hey, I finished the conversion program.”

He said, “Hey, let’s go on a date.”

We hadn’t met in a while, but we were able to pick up from where we’d left off. There was this connection in our souls. It was a clear go. We got engaged.

A couple days before the wedding, I was sorting through my stuff, when I found my diary. I flicked through it and came to that page, the diary entry from the day the revelation I’m a Jew, Judaism is my truth came to me as I was applying makeup in an Estonian bathroom.

And now I really was a Jew, an Orthodox Jew, marrying a chareidi man.

My family came to the wedding. They had this fear that I’d become this whole other person, but I was me — just a better version. They took part wholeheartedly, dancing the night away. They told me they’d never experienced something so happy, seen people being so genuinely happy for others.

Marriage was — is — another huge step in my quest to find myself, as me, Leah, and as a woman in this world. I love how Judaism looks at men and women and their roles differently. As someone who struggled with being in line with myself and my femininity, I found a lot of answers in the mashpia-mekabel model. Whereas the outside world can see it as suppression, I saw it as the permission and the ability to be who I really was.

I struggled so much with the controlling aspects of my nature, how I had to be super independent and in control of my plans, of my money, of myself, how I was so scared to let go, so scared to really open up. While I’d supposedly had many friends in my youth, did anyone really know me? I didn’t let them, I couldn’t accept help, couldn’t be vulnerable.

The ideas I learned and internalized about real and true emunah helped me to let go. To stop contracting, to stop being so fixated on my plan of how it had to be, and to open myself up to Hashem’s plan and His way for me. I’d worked so hard on trusting Hashem in many areas, on letting go of the supposed security of my plans, of “my money.”

Assaf wanted to go learn in kollel. I came from a different world and I was up against these voices in my head: just sitting and studying, this is so not normal, so irresponsible.

But I had to let them go. I realized that marriage isn’t about changing the other person. Because we can’t change anyone but ourselves. I had to learn to trust him, and essentially to trust in Hashem. I saw it as a triangle of me, my husband, and Hashem.

When I got frustrated within the marriage, I realized after a bit of soul-searching that it was really frustration at myself, or at Hashem. I saw the correlation in trusting my husband, as an offshoot of trusting Hashem, so strongly.

And I felt so empowered. I wanted to share that.

I didn’t come from a place where there were good examples of marriage. But I had this will to work on my marriage in the strongest way.

I combined my own holistic background and certified life coaching with what I learned from a marriage coaching program taught in the States, along with the halachic and hashkafic grounding of a renowned kallah course I trained in. One of the most profound things I learned is that communication is an art, how our thoughts and speech hold unbelievably power and potential, and how to communicate and express myself in a way that connects rather than destroys. I now make it my mission to help women have shalom bayis.

It’s so easy to get stuck and look out and point fingers to see how one’s spouse is not fulfilling you, is denying you happiness, etc., but really when you’re blaming, fingers are pointing back at you. So much of what I teach is about finding inner happiness and peace and then bringing that to your marriage. Because the key to marriage is our own personal development.

Assaf and I now have two beautiful children. I’ve become what I once thought I could never be — a person who’s found herself, a healthy wife and mother. And while conversion was one rebirthing, living trust in G-d, in a marriage, in a family, is another.

A wonderful rebirthing, because when we tap into Judaism and emunah it can fill us, and our deepest relationships, in the truest and most meaningful way.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 767)

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