| Family Tempo |

Through the Desert

I climbed the teshuvah ladder alone. As my family smeared the rungs with grease, Hashem lovingly wiped them and hoisted me up



e’re ordering Chinese food now, what are you having?”

I awoke abruptly from my Shabbos nap to see my older sister, visiting from out of town, standing over me. Half asleep and not wanting to eat treif Chinese food, I replied, “Oh, I’m okay, I don’t think I’m going to eat until later. Don’t worry about me. I’ll sit with you when it arrives.”

“You’re a witch!” came her booming response, as she stormed out and slammed my bedroom door. Out in the living room I heard, “Your daughter doesn’t want to be part of the family!”

As a psychotherapist, it’s not too often that my baalei teshuvah clients come in to discuss their BT experience in therapy. They look at me with surprise when I want to spend time on that aspect of their life during my evaluation: “How much of your family is frum? How much support did you get? What’s it like visiting their homes these days? How does it feel at holiday time?”

More often than not, they simply shrug and say, “It is what it is.”

But every baal teshuvah has their unique experience of becoming frum, be it together with their family, by themselves, with guidance or without, with support or without, with silent acceptance or with outright rejection. I climbed the ladder alone. As my family smeared the rungs with grease, Hashem lovingly wiped them and hoisted me up.

Unlike many baalei teshuvah, I had the benefit of a Hebrew day school education. I’m often asked why an anti-frum family would send their child to day school. My answer: It was up the block, dismissal was late, it had busing, and my parents didn’t want their children to be completely unaffiliated. But with no reference point in the home, memorizing a bunch of facts about holidays doesn’t take a child very far.

I grew up feeling isolated. I was the only child (my siblings are a lot older than me) in a dark home on an acre of wooded land, with no other kid on the block and no frum kids for miles around. My parents, both professionals, worked until late.

But I did have G-d. He was the One I spoke to, cried to, pleaded with, described my feelings to. What I wanted more than anything in the world as was to be part of something. I’d sleep over at friends’ houses for Shabbos, and watch longingly, hungrily, as kids darted in and out of each others’ houses.

The Young Israel my friends went to was, to my mind, heaven on earth. Hordes of kids, hustle and bustle and entertainment. Candy. Prizes. I dreamed of growing up and living close to the street, where I could hear the neighborhood kids. Of being a Bnos mom, a PTA mom, a class trip chaperone driving a station wagon (that was in the days before minivans).

In my home, we “celebrated Shabbat” with frozen Kineret challah and Malaga wine. My father stumbled through Kiddush in his broken Hebrew. Pesach prep involved washing down the kitchen only, and taking out the Pesach dishes. My mother would take a penny from the maid and tape it to the fridge, and that clinched the chometz sale. I had no idea until I was married that the entire house had to be cleaned, nor had I heard of a chometz sales document.

We also had a succah. It was a permanent arbor at the side of the house. The sechach was the grapevines growing over it, which we detached with a snip. The overall attitude in my home was, “What’s important is to be a good person. G-d doesn’t care about rituals; those are for people with OCD.”

I have to admit that as a child, I considered myself very lucky to be able to celebrate so many holidays and get so many gifts: Chanukah gifts, gifts from Santa, Simchas Torah candy and Halloween and Valentine’s candy. The belief was that we’re Americans, and part of being American was celebrating whatever was being celebrated across America. And so we had a small Xmas tree and long socks hanging by the fireplace in view of the menorah.

I’d go to school gushing over my fun Halloween night and my visit from Santa. I got teased and tormented for this, and didn’t understand. I’d wear green to school on St. Patrick’s day. My Jewish school. It didn’t occur to my parents that they were setting their child up to be the laughingstock of the school; peers and teachers alike.

One weekend, I slept over at my father’s secretary’s house because my parents were away. Their daughter was a playmate of mine. They were Catholic. Sunday morning arrived, and I called my mother to tell her they were headed to church and I needed a pickup. My mother told me there’s nothing wrong with going to church, it would be an educational experience, I just shouldn’t bow or eat the cracker the priest gives out. Imagine my embarrassment when 200 people got down on their knees for an extended prayer, and there I stood….

When I graduated eighth grade, my parents forced me to go to public school “to get a well-rounded education.” I was bullied, had lit matches thrown at me, got spit on, and was verbally attacked for taking Jewish holidays off. My older brother was mugged at knifepoint and a huge swastika was spray-painted on our block above the words “dirty Jew.” But somehow sending me there was crucial. So I could be “well-rounded.”

At the end of the year, I begged to be sent back to day school. I was told, “We’re not spending all that money for you to be the only kid in the grade who isn’t religious!” As if that was my doing. “Fine,” I replied. “I’ll go to shul on Saturdays.” My mother tagged along as I stomped up the road. Synagogue was a jeans-and-khakis affair of about ten couples, the gabbai was intermarried, and the rabbi took his kids swimming after Shabbos lunch.

I went every week, and so did she.

So how did I become frum? Eventually my parents relented and sent me back to Hebrew day school. That was when I decided I was going to become frum. I felt like my mother’s words, “If I’m paying $15,000 you can’t be the only one in the school not observing,” was a message I needed to hear.

My first feelings of dveikus were like the most intense kind of falling in love. It was exciting, serene, intimate, deeply moving. I was floating. I wanted to show my gratitude for this Presence. I began to follow some of the halachos… and that’s where the war of the wills began.

All my school friends were shomer Shabbos, and I went to a shomer Shabbos sleepaway camp for two months every year. So I knew you couldn’t rip open the prize in the cereal box on Shabbos. I knew that light switches needed to be taped and toilet paper needed to be ripped before Shabbos. My best friend got paid every Friday afternoon to do that in her house. I knew about timers. I found a bunch of them in my father’s workshop and started hooking them up to everything, including my TV.

I started those basics almost immediately. In high school they delved deeper into hilchos Shabbos than in elementary, but still, I was a product of a 1980s/1990s day school education.

I’d tape my bathroom light on. Someone would un-tape it and close the light. The bathroom had black tiles and no windows.

I’d tape the fridge light. Midday Shabbos I’d open the fridge for a drink and find the light on. Now I couldn’t close the door. So I’d leave it open. And get yelled at. I’d leave the AC on in my bedroom. At night I’d find it switched off. I’d check the hechsher on the new salad dressing before using it. I’d be told I was crazy, salad dressing doesn’t need to be kosher.

I’d wash the dishes Friday night in cold water with no sponge. I’d be told I wasn’t honoring my mother with washing the dishes properly. I’d want to stay home Saturday afternoon when they got into the car to eat dinner out. I’d be told I’m causing pain by not wanting to spend time with my parents. These were the battles of my teenage years and twenties, with my adult siblings and extended family joining my parents’ side at any opportunity.

In college, I lived with girls who were shomer Shabbos. I picked up a few more halachos, and felt more integrated.

Eating out nonkosher dairy died hard. Growing up, we always went out for dinner on Saturday evenings and my mother ate dairy and fish. Meat and seafood were totally out of the question, and she wasn’t thrilled if I ordered chicken fingers. So in my mind, dairy was okay. I had never seen a kosher restaurant until I got to college in Manhattan. Most of my friends wouldn’t eat anywhere else. The kosher restaurants weren’t right in our neighborhood, so during the week it was easier to head to the pizzeria or the Italian Café.

Watching TV on a timer on Friday night continued until a day before my wedding at age 28. My house was just too lonely and mind-numbingly boring without my escape into the Friday night prime-time lineup.

My husband’s proclamation of, “There will not be TV on in our house on Shabbos,” was a slap for me. Looking back, I don’t even know how I thought there might have been TV. But with the company of a husband, I didn’t even miss it.

After I got married and became part of a frum community, my journey into frumkeit went through a painful polishing process.

With my exhausting career as a student over, I was able to learn more in the evenings. I read up on every Jewish holiday and every subject in between, tweaking my observance as I picked up new pieces of information. I also learned a lot from my Monsey friends, and I finally had a rav to ask questions to. And ask I did. I gratefully credit my first husband with getting me over a few really big humps with an abundance of patience.

Clothing was more like Mount Everest than a hump. As long as I was just riding the subway to grad school and back, the compromise position was blue jeans yes, tank tops no.

“A sweat suit is not appropriate Shabbos clothing” was another shocker. Somehow it had never occurred to me that after shul you still have to wear Shabbos clothing. I thought the nice clothes were for shul.

After my move to Monsey, I covered my hair, elbows, and knees. I wanted to run a psychotherapy business, and I understood that I needed to make a decision about who I was going to be.

My one holdout was working in the garden, which just felt like a sweatpants occasion to me. But my neighbor two doors down made a habit of yelling “Shiksaaaaaa!!” from his car. The day I had to hide behind a bush because the rabbi was walking by was the day I threw in the towel and put a skirt over my sweatpants.

When I put on long sleeves and a sheitel, bedlam broke loose in my family. When I showed up at my parents’ house in a tichel, I was told to get the rag off my head because I looked like Aunt Jemima. If I was seen davening, I was told, “All the praying in the world won’t make you a good person. This isn’t what G-d wants from you.”

Each time something upsetting happens in my life, it’s attributed by my family to my being frum. I’m still unclear on how that math works.

Slowly, I came to a lot of painful realizations. I realized I’d been eating bishul akum at home and treif dairy in restaurants, had never eaten the shiur of anything at the Seder (actually our Seders were at 5 p.m., so it wasn’t even Pesach!), had never sat in a kosher succah… never mind the bit about avodah zarah! That first year, I dreaded every holiday — I’d find out what k’halachah really looked like, and grieve some more.

Hashem blessed me with a sense of humor, and the ability to laugh at myself. Without that, being a new kallah trying to keep a frum home would have been unbearably embarrassing. Our first Pesach, we went to the kosher supermarket and I began to load the cart. I knew what to get: Manischewitz coffee cake mix, Rokeach egg kichels, Streit’s matzos in the pink box. I turned back and found the cart empty! My husband had been putting each item back on the shelf as I went. “Gebrochts,” he said.


That was my introduction to the heimish hechsher. I could buy any item in the store with those markings. Okay. No problem.

I cleaned the kitchen, put away the appliances, and went out back to get a rock. “Okay, I’m ready for you to kasher the Kiddush cup!” I said, beaming, and handing him the teapot.

“Uh, why is there a boulder in the kitchen sink?”

“Kashering stone!”

“What do you want me to do?” he asked with a straight face.

“You put the Kiddush cup in the sink with the stone, you pour hot water over them both, and it makes it Pesachdig. Duh!”

“So let me make sure I understand. You put a rock from the yard in a chometzdig sink with the Kiddush cup, then you pour hot water from the chometz teapot over the two… and now it’s all Pesachdig? And then what do we do with the rock?”

I stood there, jaw open. Speechless.

“Is this what your mother did for Pesach?”

My eyes filled with tears, and I nodded.

Once, on a visit to my parents, my husband stood over a potted plant filled with utensils, scratching his chin.

“Why does the plant have forks jutting out of it?”

I looked at him as if he had just landed from Mars. “They got treifed up, so they go in the plant!”

“I see. And uh, how long do they stay in the plant?”

“Like, ten weeks I think.”

“Ten weeks, you say. And then what happens?”

“Well then they’re kosher again. Duh!”

When he was done laughing, my husband taught me the correct way to deal with misused utensils.

I’d never seen chalav Yisrael, shemurah matzah, an oil menorah, mayim acharonim, esrogim saved rather than tossed in the trash. When I was introduced to my first keilim mikveh, I took my mother’s entire utensil drawer out to the waterfront behind their house and began dunking it all off the edge of the dock. Let’s not get into what happened when she found out….

The stories are endless, and I can laugh about it now. But when I think of how I was robbed of the opportunity to follow Hashem’s laws for over two decades of my life, it hurts. I hear the words of Yom Kippur Mussaf “Halo l’mishma ozen dava nafsheinu…”

I get told a lot that my family is considered tinok shenishbah. It’s not my place to determine if that is or isn’t so. It’s my place to honor how it felt to me to be actively denied the opportunity to be frum. I also feel obligated to share possible feelings that some baalei teshuvah who made the journey unsupported may feel. I feel obligated to use my experience to inspire.

Nobody took me under their wing and taught me how to observe mitzvos. I didn’t go to a seminary or a kiruv institute. I racked my brain to recall what I’d been quizzed on in school. I bought books and devoured them and followed what it said inside. I googled things. I copied what I saw my friends do. I attend shiurim. I’m still learning. I tell myself we all are.

One day, my neighbor across the street said to me, “I think it’s time to start seeing your friends as your frum family, the frum family you always wanted.” It was a turning point for me, a moment I stopped “undoing” and started living.

My happily married life unraveled at one point (because I had become frum, according to my parents). Prayer and learning took on a much stronger urgency… my bailing bucket in a sinking canoe. When you connect that hard, you literally see light. I danced alone in that light for five years, and even though it was the worst of times, I had never before felt those levels of joy.

That I would be zocheh to a home that was secular-free, TV-free, social-media-free, all Torah, all the time, was not on my radar as a possibility. But clearly my tears were collected in jars, later to rain down as blessings. The first time I ever sat down and said the entire Tehillim in one day was the day my future new husband stepped into a synagogue. It was Purim, and his name was Goralnick. Two years later, we met.

At first, I balked. In my personal journey, I’d summited Everest. I was there! Start again from scratch? With the ABCs and 123s? Teach the zemiros I had cracked my teeth over in my teenage years and relive the torture by watching somebody else crack their teeth?! Listen to the broken Kiddush of my childhood at my Shabbos table?

And what about the yawning cultural divide — his manner of speech, his pants with the pleated front that would never fly in my part of town, his royal blue yarmulke, the fact that he couldn’t follow any of the lingo… Aaarrrggghhh!

But someone had taken me in. Someone had patiently guided me. I, too, had arrived in Monsey in a red V-neck top. I only realized years later the agmas nefesh I probably caused. And I found myself ever grateful. Indebted. One may never know what may bloom from the seeds they’ve sown and the ongoing merit they’re reaping even once they’ve moved on to other things. And now I felt I was being asked to pay it forward.

The first Pesach Seder wasn’t easy. It was a jeans and cell phones affair that I sat through with a smile glued to my face and a heart heavy with painful memories as 27 people shifted in their seats and checked their watches. I asked Hashem why He could possibly want me back at square one. Hadn’t I earned a kosher, religious Pesach evermore?!

It’s funny how far the “not appreciating our blessings” can go. The fact that this man had quit a state job of 18 years and moved from the secular world hours away to Monsey and was enrolling in yeshivah full-time remained unabsorbed by me. All I heard werr the words “Pesach Seder with my family.”

At the local Chabad the next morning, the rabbi asked, “Why do we stop at ‘v’lakachti,’ Hashem making us a nation, which occurs at Sinai? What about that fifth act of redemption, whereby Hashem settles us in the Promised Land?” No, he explained. Hashem doesn’t do that part for us. Equipped with the freedom, the identity, and the laws, we have to figure out how to settle ourselves.

“Just because you set out to do a mitzvah,” he added, firmly, “and you learned to do a mitzvah, and you wish to do a mitzvah, doesn’t mean you have it coming to you! Don’t assume entitlement!” My ears rang.

On the second day the rabbi added, “Don’t put on those ridiculous goggles to eat the maror! Life is not a journey away from pain, but a journey through pain. That’s why we make a brachah on the bitter herbs!”

Isn’t that what I teach my clients in DBT? Distress tolerance? And yet I’m not on board with that goal when it comes to my religious life. I want the walk through the desert to be over. The evolution to be complete. But it’s not. It’s a journey.

So, 15 years frum, I enter a new, unexpected, deeply rattling chapter of my religious journey, not dissimilar to what my ancestors experienced when entering the Promised Land. I guess I’ll work on getting settled.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 677)


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