Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Escape from the Secular Prison

More than ten years ago my wife and I were walking in the German Colony in Jerusalem on a Sabbath eve, or perhaps early Saturday evening. Anyway the streets were very quiet, and there were very few passers-by, and the city was still shrouded in holiness, when from somewhere on the left came a sudden, enormous outburst of chanting. It was too far away to see where it came from, but close enough to be heard clearly. My heart leaped as I recognized the sound of Jews praying together enthusiastically. I told my wife: "I wish I could go and join them", and she replied simply, "Well why don't you?"  I admitted to her that I simply couldn't - I had been raised in a decent, upright, secular-Zionist home that instilled in me the belief that religious Jews were the devil incarnated.
At the time there was simply no way that I could go into a synagogue and pray. The inner psychological barriers were far too intense, and besides, what did I know from praying and synagogues? The way I was raised, I had no idea about such Jewish traditions, and I was far more likely to burn a synagogue than pray in it. To illustrate the level of ignorance and loathing of Judaism I had come from, there was a joke we used to tell about a German Jew who would protest: "Of course I'm Jewish! After all, I don't eat bacon in synagogue on Yom Kippur!"

Miraculously, I had somehow been able to free myself from this secular indoctrination to the point that I was capable of feeling that I was missing something important for my soul - my Jewish heritage. Unfortunately, I was still unable to reach out and grasp it, I could only stare at it longingly - and in great fear and apprehension - from afar.

Previously on this blog I documented my unsuccessful journey towards Judaism in a series of posts stretching through November, December, and January of 2006/7. I started off with a pretty terrifying dream that illustrates the degree to which my Jewish heritage and lack thereof was, quite literally, haunting me. You can read the post here. Another post, "Purging this secular Jew" provides a very detailed picture of my secular background and how I came to realize, very slowly, that I was Jewish, and it also overviews my initial, unsuccessful attempts to become familiar with my heritage. "My First Official Judaism Lesson" describes a meeting with a Habadnik, and my attempt to read the book "How to be a Jew", which resulted in a terrifying nightmare. I stopped reading the book immediately (as it happens, just last week I  resumed reading it. As of now, I am not having any nightmares!) This post describes My Second Judaism Lesson, held in an obscure yeshiva for Baalei Tshuva, after my Habadnik disappeared, and this post describes my second (and last) time there. This post documents an unfruitful visit to Machon Meir. The last post in this series describes an uneventful Visit To The Local Synagogue. The blog posts end after that and indeed, about five years ago I stopped trying to reclaim my Jewish heritage and went off to deal with other more urgent issues, such as paying the rent... Several people followed my journey at the time and gave me some very good advice, especially West Bank Mama and Mother in Israel. I wish to take this opportunity to thank both of them and invite them to read on...their efforts were not in vain. Which brings me to the point: why am I bothering you with all this?

I am doing so because last week, I went into a synagogue and prayed Mincha and Arvit like a real, grown-up, honest-to-goodness Jew would. Even though I had never been to this synagogue, and the prayer leader had an awful, barely understandable Yiddish accent, I still managed to understand and keep track, more or less, of what was going on. The important thing was that I stepped into the synagogue without fear or apprehension, in the clear feeling that I belonged there, that the Jewish heritage is mine also, and that I have the right (perhaps even the obligation) to partake in it, and that I even know how to!
I was not ashamed to enter the synagogue and pray, I was not ashamed to be with other religious Jews (in this case - actual Hasidim!), and I had no sense of betrayal. In fact, not only did I not feel bad about myself - I felt great. I felt liberated, and I was walking on air the whole evening and several days after. Oddly enough, it turns out that a secular education, which prides itself on nurturing freedom, can also be a prison - if it religiously forbids faith and religious tradition (and yes, hating religion can be a religion unto itself).

But the path to freedom is never easy and neither was mine. Like I said, I had given up on ever reclaiming my heritage. For several years I made no further attempts in this area of my life. In fact I was so busy trying to move from Jerusalem to the North (and back again - don't ask) that I admit I almost completely - but not entirely - forgot about the Jewish hole in my soul. But as they say, men make plans, and God laughs hysterically. I'm guessing He took great pleasure in planning  this one out and I hope you enjoy the story as well:

How the Housing Crisis Helped Me Repair the Jewish Hole in My Soul
So we were back in Jerusalem after going completely out of our comfort zone into unfamiliar territory. We had moved around the country in the worst time possible, just at the onset of the housing crisis. As a result, we lived in pretty shitty houses, with pretty shitty landlords, who did as little as possible to maintain their property, while extorting as much as possible from their tenants. We still had a particularly rapacious one breathing down our necks, and only three months in which to find an apartment in Jerusalem that would both satisfy our needs, personal as well as professional, and still be within our means. As anyone who has had to search for an apartment in Jerusalem (or anywhere else in the country, I suppose), this was asking quite a lot. We had also vowed never again to take an apartment that we did not want, just because there was no other choice. "Ein Briera" was out (and for those not fluent in Hebrew, Ein Breira is not a name of a refreshing spring in the Judean Desert. If anything, it is the gateway to hell). If needed, I was willing to live in the streets and not sign a diabolical contract or rent an awful apartment. In this grim, determined mood we set out to look for an apartment.

In over two and a half months I think we saw about 25 apartments, none of which were even remotely close to satisfying our needs and all of which looked terrible and cost a lot more than was reasonable. Along the way we met many openly greedy and inconsiderate landlords, who unashamedly showed us their expensive, neglected property. It was a very dismaying and harrowing time, and we had barely two weeks left! There was the one apartment, which we had seen a month before. My wife liked it but the room that was supposed to be my study was very small - I had been dreaming of a much larger study, not a much smaller one. The other rooms were also smaller than we needed, so we moved on - I was sure that we could find something better - we simply had to!

And then we finally saw an apartment that was suitable - at least it was large enough, really spacious, and also the rent was affordable for us and it even looked ok, at least some of it. The big problem was that it was on a very noisy street, but what choice did we have? In two months and a half this was the first and only apartment that had enough room for our stuff. We talked to the landlord who looked OK, but when my wife began to get into the specifics he seemed to back off and hesitate. The problem became clear when he sent us the contract - it was an eight page monstrosity that mainly stated that we have no rights whatsoever, and the landlord has no obligations. I thought that if you need 8 pages of legal jargon to rent an apartment, perhaps you would be better off finding someone else more trustworthy to deal with. The landlord was unwilling to budge, so we had to sign the contract or find something else - and we had only ten days! But we just couldn't sign it - the contract was truly frightening.

Out of all the apartments we had seen there was only one that my wife liked (I hadn't liked any), so in a gesture of defeat I suggested we call up the apartment again and see if it was still for rent - a whole month had passed so it was improbable, but still, it was worth a try. I said that I would measure all the stuff in my room and then we'll check the study in the new apartment to see if it really was that small. Somehow the apartment was still for rent and we made an appointment. Previously we had met with the husband, a very gentle, mild-mannered person. My wife had been very impressed with the way he let us be, while quietly playing with his child (I was too busy being disappointed to notice). This time we met with his wife who seemed nice too. Both were religious, the husband had a kippah and the wife a shavis. I measured the study and it was actually pretty good - the important stuff would fit. We discussed the price with the wife and then agreed to meet at their place in the evening to close the deal. It looked like we were close to finishing this terrible ordeal, but we wouldn't know until the contract was signed.

We met at their parents house (they were religious too). It turned out that they (our couple) had bought the apartment but were living with the parents until they could pay off some of the mortgage - which was our rent. So, as we had felt, this was not the standard landlord trying to pillage the tenants, but just ordinary people trying to get along. The parents were very nice and the whole atmosphere was pleasant. We talked a bit and felt each other out. Everybody read the contract - it was a very standard one, and then we signed it and that was that - simple, easy and uncomplicated, just like signing a lease should be! We called the movers and quickly packed our stuff. We did not talk much to our religious landlords until about two months after that - we had finished moving in and putting the final touches on our home for the next few years. Some things that had to be fixed had been taken care of by the landlords, and now we were inviting them to see the place, to finalize some things, and to get to know them better - they really seemed like a very nice couple.

After being floored by the way we had set up the apartment (my wife is very talented in this regard) we sat down to talk and then we learned that the wife had a small business of her own and that the husband, David, was a bonafide "Avrech", a yeshiva student who spent all day at the "Kollel" studying Torah, or as Haaretz, the Israeli tabloid of record, calls such people: "a blood-sucking parasite". This specific "parasite" seemed pleasant enough. He smiled at me and invited me to the kollel to study with him. I said that I just might do that, remembering that I still hadn't finished my Jewish journey, and wondering if another opportunity had just presented itself. David said that I can come anytime. I warned him that I really might do so, but he did not back down. It took another month until I got around to it but we finally met at the kollel. He gave me a kippah and we went to the synagogue, where it was quiet. He asked what I wanted to learn and I said "everything", which was true.

So we started with an overview of Judaism, beginning with the Torah and moving on to the Mishanh until modern times. It was the first time that I really understood how Judaism unfolded, and terms like "Tanaaim" and "Rishonim"  and "Halacha" that had been wandering around in my brain lacking any context and meaning (well, except for negative ones), finally came together. I was very happy, relieved, and excited when we stepped out of the kollel at the end of our first meeting. It was just  before the holiday season and one of the other avrechim cried out to me "Why don't you come with us to Uman?" I replied that I had already traveled much further than that (spiritually, of course) just to reach this kollel...and I then explained to David my blackround regarding Judaism (no, that's not a spelling mistake. I may have invented a new word. If so, you can use it freely). He listened attentively and seemed  very empathic.

Unfortunately the holidays were upon us and the kollel was on vacation and it took almost another two months until we met again. In our second meeting I told him that in light of what I learned the last time we met, I would like to study the mitzvot one by one (there is a book that lists them all, he had told me), learn how to perform them, their meanings and reasons, that I also wanted to learn the Torah itself with him, and also to learn the daily life of a normal, practicing Jew. He said that learning the mitzvot individually would not make much sense and that it would be better to just go through the Jewish day, and that is what we did - and have been doing - once a week ever since. David taught me arvit and then mincha and the morning blessings. He bought me a siddur and wrote a very beautiful, loving dedication in it - my father never got me a siddur so this was my very first one. He also got me a kippah, a black felt one, like his. My wife says that I would look better in a more colorful kippah, and if anyone would have told me that in any stage of my life I would be kippa-shopping with my wife, I would have assured that person that he was certifiably insane...

I demanded and received detailed explanations about everything, every word in the prayers, all the reasons and meanings - everything was explained in depth without fail. Sometimes David was at a loss with one of my questions and had to check with other books or his colleagues and I appreciated that - he was secure enough to admit that he did not know everything and open enough to appreciate that an outsider like me could bring an entirely new perspective to what for him was, perhaps, overly familiar. He taught me how to pray, what is customary to do and when - it really surprised me how complex this was, since one must pay attention both to one's individual prayer but also to the general pace in which the prayer leader and the rest of the congregation is praying at. It is an interesting balance between individual and group. David has ordered me a tefillin, at a reasonable price (I had no idea religious paraphernalia could be so expensive!) which I am still waiting for. In a few days we meet again and we will begin to learn about the Sabbath and I am very excited for that. We are also studying the Torah.

This is a funny thing - about five years ago I bought the Daat Mikra set of books (the Torah only),  thinking that I would read it and with the help of the exegesis I would understand the text. For some reason, bible Hebrew had always defeated me, and it did so this time too. As much as I read the Torah I simply could not understand what was written in it. I am far from stupid, so it was clear to me that this was another case of an emotional barrier blocking me from connecting to the Jewish texts. But after a few meetings with David, the mists cleared, and now I can read the Torah easily and fluently. Questions still come up and I discuss them with my mentor, David, but I can really read the Torah easily and independently. The Torah is now mine, and for me this is a magnificent achievement. Soon we will finish reading the Book of Genesis and this will be the first time in my life that I have read it. It is a terrible thing for parents to hide or forbid such a treasure from their children.

I already mentioned that I even prayed independently, in a nearby Habad synagogue (I have a feeling that in Jerusalem you are never that far away from a synagogue. I am only now beginning to notice how many there are!). I am looking forward to having a real Sabbath, to learning the morning prayers and the use of tefillin and tallith. Every time I meet with David, every time I pray in a synagogue, I feel relieved, as if some more of the terrible shadow that has been dogging me all my life is gradually being swept away. I palpably feel that I am exorcising the ghosts of my grandfather, the orthodox Rabbi, and his rebellious son, who completely rejected Judaism. I feel that it is my duty to reconcile the two by finding a middle path, between tradition and modernity. I do not know yet where this will end and how far I will get into the tradition. I find it hard to believe that I will ever become a real orthodox Jew; many things are still very difficult for me. For instance, there are so many prayers and blessings throughout the day, that being an observant Jew is like having a whole other job. They weren't kidding when they called it "Avodat HaShem"...and currently, I cannot see where I am going to fit this new job into my very tight schedule. Also, although I am looking forward to going to the Sabbath service, I am not looking forward to losing 3 hours of sleep on the only day of rest I have. And there are many other things that bother me. The thing is that I do not know yet how much of this resistance is due to my antagonist upbringing and how much of this is because I really should not become so observant. These are things that I will have to continue to sort out. But if I do end up being the exact same thing that I was brought up to hate the most, this would prove once again an important psychological truth: It is indeed a thin line between love and hate.

However, where I end up is not important. What's important is that whenever I get to where I need to be, I have vowed to go to my father's grave and say Kaddish. I already did this when he died, but I had no idea what I was saying or why. Now I actually know what the words mean and I will say them and I will lay to rest both of my ancestors' souls, and I myself will be able to finally live my life (and sleep!) in peace, at least in this respect.
I have also vowed never to trash the avrechim again nor hate them. How can I, after I have received so much from this system? I still do not like it, and I think that Judaism, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel would all be better served if religion would get out of politics completely, but I refuse to hate anymore. Whenever I think of avrechim, and kollelim, and religious Jews on the dole, I will think of David, who came out of nowhere, and with his modesty, and kindness, and infinite patience, and utterly non-judgmental attitude became my gateway to Judaism and thus helped me rescue a crucial part of my soul. I could never have done it without him, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Finally, what are the odds of such a thing happening? I mean what were the odds that I would find an apartment that suited our needs and was affordable, and that also had decent, honest landlords, one of whom just happened to be an avrech with whom I would have an instant rapport and who would help me reclaim my Jewish heritage, a task I had already given up on years ago? I told David that if I knew beforehand that I would have to find such a combination of circumstances I would never have even begun to try, because I would have known that such a thing was completely impossible. But I am thinking that perhaps I am not a very good judge of what is and is not possible, and I realize now that such judgments are perhaps best left in the hands of those who actually perform such miracles, namely: G-d.

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