September 19, 2019

Why Choosing a Torah Path Is So Hard to Explain

Orthodox Jews like me often must try to explain our beliefs and practices to those who hold many misconceptions about Judaism.

A Christian colleague once asked me, “Is pork still not kosher?”

“Still not and never will be,” I answered.

A Jewish woman cornered me one night after a laughter yoga class and said, “I didn’t know you were allowed to attend a mixed gathering like this. Do you get out much?” On the flip side, when I recently arrived in Israel, the passport control man looked at me and asked, “You can go around in your community with that much hair showing from your beret?” I smiled and said yes. Then he whipped out a picture of his wife, who wears berets like I do. “She used to be Satmar,” he explained.

I used to carry loads of my own stereotypes about Torah observance. The most embarrassing one was thinking most Orthodox women were just Stepford Wives with two sets of dishes. Despite being a writer always in search of a good story, it never occurred to me to write a book about my slow transition to tradition — until a terribly awkward incident at a weekend writers’ conference.

I tried to duck out unnoticed on a Saturday night, being needed at home, but as the elevator doors were closing on my way down to the lobby, another writer jammed his foot inside and joined me. You didn’t need a journalism degree to be curious about the tall red and white box on my luggage cart with the incriminating label “KOSHER LAMP” on it.

“What is a kosher lamp?” he asked in a snarky tone. I knew instantly he was a Member of the Tribe. Most non-Jews wouldn’t dare be so chutzpadik about someone else’s religion. Hadn’t I already paid the price for being shomeret Shabbat by walking up the 11 flights of stairs on Friday night and Saturday, carrying my homemade meals on a paper plate to get to the conference room?

I tried to explain about the movable cover over the lamp, but I knew it sounded technical and weird. I failed the Hillel test spectacularly. When Hillel had been challenged to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot, he did so masterfully — in one sentence. The MOT parried a second sarcastic question as we parted ways.

I was so frustrated. I hated being seen as some unthinking religious fundamentalist. A formerly snarky nonobservant Jew myself, I also had looked down on my brother and sister Jews who dutifully walked to shul on Saturday while I was driving right past them on my way to the movies.

This fellow writer and Jew knew nothing of my years of personal struggle — intellectual, emotional, spiritual — that preceded and to some extent continued in my life as a baalat teshuvah. How could I explain in mere seconds what it had taken me years to understand and appreciate? The magic of Shabbat is that it is a day when we stop frantically doing to enjoy the serenity of being. Yes, the laws of Shabbat observance are strict and numerous, but they are required for the integrity of the experience.

“A formerly snarky nonobservant Jew myself, I also had looked down on my brother and sister Jews who dutifully walked to shul on Saturday while I was driving right past them on my way to the movies.”

My decision to finally write a memoir about my experiences gained added urgency because around the same time, several anti-Orthodox memoirs were published, mostly by people in Chasidic communities. Their stories were uniformly damning, even dystopian. These books were lavished with media attention, despite several of the writers having little to no publishing history. The Jewish Book Council, an important review clearinghouse, reviewed them all. Yes, leaving religion is sexy.

In writing about Orthodoxy at its narrowest borders and in some cases, without the perspective of distance in time to offer a counterbalancing view, these writers unfairly reinforced the adjective “Orthodox” with “repressive.”

I could not let those writers speak for me. I chose my journey only after serious thought, study, conversation and observation. My truth was that signing onto the covenant at Sinai had given me great gifts of a warm and supportive community, pleasure and intellectual stimulation through Torah study, and a solid framework for my marriage and family life. I had been stunned to discover how little about Judaism I really knew. For example, I was blown away to learn the idea of an immortal soul — which I always thought was Christian — was Jewish in origin. What other emotionally nourishing ideas had been dropped from the syllabus?

Choosing Torah observance felt right but also was scary. It threatened my sense of self as a feminist and my social standing among my close Jewish friends. None of them ever asked me why I was doing this.

Thousands of formerly secular Jews have become Torah-observant over the last generation, and our stories are underreported. My life has been immeasurably enriched but still has plenty of challenges, as all lives do. While many mitzvahs have come naturally to me, such as giving 10 percent to tzedakah and trying to avoid lashon harah, or gossip, others — like covering my hair after marriage — were deeply unpalatable. I resisted for years until I found a measure of understanding and acceptance of the reasons behind them. If I find out one day that having kept a mitzvah that was hard for me earned me more points “up there,” I won’t mind.

Orthodox Jews get a lot of bad press, and some of it is deserved. But the beautiful stories about Torah life seemingly only are told in books and articles geared toward an insider crowd. Leaving Orthodoxy is sexy; joining it is not. My book, despite my credits as a longtime journalist and the distinctiveness of a funny memoir about finding Orthodoxy not abhorrent but rather wonderful, was ignored by all the secular media outlets that rushed to publicize the religion-as-abuse memoirs. Even the Jewish Book Council took a pass.

As for the MOT who razzed me about my “Kosher Lamp,” I am happy to report he came over to me as I packed my car, smiled and wished me a good week. I smiled in return. It had been a classic baal teshuvah moment — wanting all our MOTs to accept us.

My story is for him — and for all of us.


Judy Gruen’s latest book is her memoir, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith” (She Writes Press). Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Jewish Action, Aish.com and many other media outlets.