Lessons From ‘My Jewtor’

We’re about the same age and, from a distance, it almost looks like we could be sisters. But that’s where the similarities end between Melissa and me.

Melissa is what I call “My Jewtor,” a woman assigned to me by a local rabbi to tutor me about Judaism. For months now, I’ve been showing up at her apartment to sit at her kitchen table, and in the parlance of the Orthodox, “learn together” — although I sometimes wonder if she has much to learn from me.

“What would you like to talk about?” she asked me in our first phone conversation, her small voice barely audible. Some devious part of me wanted to play “Stump the Jewtor.”

“Life. What’s it all about?” I asked.

“Sure,” she replied. “No problem.”

No problem? I had a good feeling about her right from the start. This is the kind of stuff religious people traffic in every day, I thought. They can discuss the meaning of life the way we secular types can talk about the weather. No problem.

During our first meeting, we dove right into the big questions: why we’re here, how to know if God exists, how to live, why bad things happen to good people, the purpose of pain. My head felt like it was going to explode.

Being Jewish is an important part of my identity, but observing Jewish laws is peripheral to my life. For Melissa, it is her core. She wears a sheitl, covers every part of her body, prays over everything from waking up to eating and spends most of her free time either teaching or learning all things Jewish. She wouldn’t dream of going out dancing, doesn’t see the point of most movies and doesn’t even own a television set.

My Jewtor is consumed with how to be a better person and how to improve her relationship with God. I’m not sure I believe in God at all, a fact that made the blood drain from her face and tears well up in her eyes when I told her.

The only time Melissa looked more upset was when I told her that I was dating a non-Jew.

“How do you feel about that?” she asked, as though I had just told her my dog died.

“Fine,” I replied.

“We’ll talk about that next time,” she said. We never did.

There are certainly times when I’ve felt judged by my Jewtor. Though she has never said as much, I know she disapproves of many of the things I do. Still, I go back. Busy, tired, over-scheduled, I drag myself to her apartment and struggle over everything from the difference between the Mishnah and the Talmud to the philosophy behind family purity laws and the concept of Shabbat.

On Purim, I was dashing out the door late for work when she called and asked if she could stop by. She couldn’t have been more out of place in my ramshackle neighborhood, gingerly approaching my door in her perfectly tailored suit, black flats and simple gold earrings. She handed me a basket of food, as is the Purim custom, she explained, and drove off.

My co-workers were confounded by the little straw basket on my desk that day, filled with home-baked zucchini bread, rice and vegetables, fruit and even bottled water wrapped in foil.

“It’s from my Jewtor,” I explained. “It’s a Purim thing. You’re supposed to give a basket containing at least two different kinds of foods to someone.”

“I wish I had a Jewtor,” they sighed.

The idea that someone would be so generous and want nothing in return touched me and haunted me and confused me. I keep that straw basket on my desk to this day. When I asked why there were more than two types of food in my gift, Melissa replied that there’s a law in Judaism not only to follow the rules but to do more whenever possible.

Just after Purim, a guy asked if I could give him a jump, standing frustrated by his broken-down car. I had just enough time to grab my coffee and get to work, so I declined. The guilt got to me while I waited in line, and I turned around and went back to help the man. The incredibly minor good deed stayed with me longer than a latte buzz. It’s a facile point, but it feels good to do good. Melissa reminds me of that.

She also reminds me that there’s more than one way to succeed in life, which is nice when you feel like a big failure. Career success is so secondary in Melissa’s world, and some days that’s a nice paradigm to brush up against. All that matters to her is how closely we can follow divine teachings.

I spend a lot of time wondering who’s happier — Melissa, with her long-sleeved sweaters on hot days and her intricate, time-consuming laws to follow, or me, with my freedom and accompanying ever-present questions about what this is all for.

I don’t know. I just know that there’s more than one way to be a good person, more than one way to be a good Jew and only one thing to do when a guy needs a jump.

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.