Three years and eleven days ago I wrote an article about the process by which I went from being a non-religious secular (or “cultural”) Jew to gradually becoming a more religiously observant one. It’s fascinating, to me, how much has really happened in this time period. As this article has been the most commented upon article I have ever written, I think the time has come for a follow-up.
Reflections on Israel 2002
I went to Israel with the idea that I would stay for awhile and learn about being a religiously observant Jew, and that was my full intention when I got on the plane on December 25, 2001. There had been a tiny fraction of my friends at Rutgers who regularly pestered me to stay there permanently, and on the other side of the spectrum there was my mother, who only had agreed to let me go because our rabbi in Boro Park had convinced her that it was the best for me. Something about the random suicide bombings didn’t quite appeal to her. The idea of dying in a most gruesome manner didn’t appeal to me either, however I was certain that this was the necessary thing for me to do in order to live life as a knowledgeable Orthodox Jew.
At some point in the process things changed for me. I believe it was one Friday night when I was walking back to the dormitories with a couple of newly made acquaintances. At some point during the walk there was an area overlooking a large area of some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen, mostly houses in the old part of Jerusalem. I was overwhelmed by how incredibly lovely it was, and thought that this surely was some sort of sign that perhaps I was meant to live in Israel. It also moved me how Israel was the homeland of the Jewish people, and if I were to be an observant Jew, where else but Israel should I live?
There are many answers to that question, one of them being New York City. It was only a couple of weeks after I had the first realization that I had a second realization – there was no way that I could possibly live in Israel, at least not at that point in my life. As much as my friends had told me about what a fantastically welcoming place Israel was and how one felt right at home there, I felt the exact opposite. At various points in time I felt as though people wanted nothing to do with me and that I was a total stranger there. As rude as some people claim customer service is in New York City, it doesn’t even begin to touch the hostility I got when I was in Jerusalem. The decision was thus made that I had to return to the United States at a fixed point in time. I fixed that point in time as sometime in the middle of June, but even that turned out to be too far in the future for me, as I got increasingly restless as time went on. Early on in March, I decided that I had spent enough time in Israel, and a couple of weeks later I went home.
Same Name, Different City
Around the middle of January, 2003, the person I was in a relationship with challenged me to finish off the time I had initially proposed on staying at the Ohr Somayach yeshiva, but instead of going back to Israel, I could instead go to peaceful Monsey, New York. Monsey is about fifty minutes by car with reasonable traffic from New York, but it might as well be in a different universe. I once again wanted to strengthen what I knew about being a religiously observant Jew and living that kind of lifestyle. I was once again in a serious relationship (it’s at least nice to know that I have had naught but serious relationships since I have been religiously observant – as opposed to before, when I once had go-nowhere flings) and I felt that this was the necessary course of action.
Necessary it may have been, but at what cost? Being berated for wanting to have one’s own opinion is certainly not a nice jar of gefilte fish to behold. Watching as one’s peers dress a certain way, thinking that it is the only way to dress, makes one giggle, but I found it to be largely troubling. Here were people who had come to learn something serious, and what were they getting out of it? Superficialities. At the end of the day, did it matter what fabric your head covering was made of, if you still cut ahead of people in line, pushed people out of the way to give honor to a sacred document given by the Creator of the Universe? Said sacred document would instruct you, naturally, precisely not to push people out of the way if you were really interested in getting to it. Did the people take heed?
One of the rabbis at the yeshiva told me that many people attended and were strengthened in their ways. I think by this he meant that they were more stringent in the application of the laws. I went away from the yeshiva less stringent, being more open-minded than I had ever been while still staying within a framework of being religiously observant. I ended up staying in Monsey for a bit longer than I had been anticipating but it certainly was a positive learning experience for me.
Where to Live?
Where is the right place for a person to live? What is the real meaning behind the expression, “Home is where the heart is?" What does it all mean? I have lived in Manhattan for two short periods of time and one reasonably long period of time which ended recently with my coming to my mother’s home in South Brunswick, NJ to stay for a couple of weeks before going to live on the west side of Seattle. It’s rather amusing to me in that I was living on the west side of one city and now I am going to live on the west side of another city.
I have been told by a few people who know me reasonably well that I should not try to live outside of Manhattan, as I was not suited for living anywhere else. However, speaking from a religious and cultural perspective, I don’t think that this is the case. I could be entirely wrong and come back in a few months with my tail between my legs (rest assured there will be an article on the experience should this happen) however I don’t think that I will. I am fully cogniscant that West Seattle doesn’t touch the Upper West Side of Manhattan when it comes to religious Jewish life. On the other hand, there is something which appeals to me about a small but growing community. Having sometimes wondered what it would be like to be a pioneer, or an explorer coming across an unexplored island, I think this too shall be a positive growing experience for me. That, and the rent is absurdly more affordable in West Seattle.
In the course of only a few years I have learned an incredible amount about what it means to be a religiously observant Jew. I have lived in various parts of the world and am soon to be living in yet elsewhere, where hopefully I will be able to ground myself for a good duration of time. I was quite rigid and strict – not that I ever gave up my darling film collection, or the art of writing – and I have grown to be more lenient and open-minded about things. I look forward to growing further in observance over the years to come.