Happy Tisha B’Av!

Growing up, I’m pretty sure I never heard of Tisha B’Av. During my Chabad years I guess I was too young for it, and I don’t think Reform acknowledges the day in any meaningful way. My parents certainly didn’t tell me about it.

But from the time I did learn about the holiday (if that’s even the right word) at some point in my early twenties, it intrigued me. I found the concept of longing for the Temple (also very much not a thing in Reform) deeply moving, even if I related to it more as a metaphor than anything else, and over time coming to believe in the existence of the First Temple became an important step on my path toward, eventually, starting to believe in God.

Once, five years ago, when I was going through a periodic phase of trying to be more religious, I decided I’d see what the day was all about. At the time, I was more or less regularly attempting to attend a very observant, yet very woke, trad-egal congregation populated by a very highly Jewishly educated and Jewishly connected crowd, where I felt very out of place, and which I stopped attending not long thereafter.

Anyway, this one year, I decided to check out the evening Eichah reading. From my reading, Tisha B’Av seemed like it just might be my kind of holiday.

And was it ever! The ban on greetings (which I was saddened to see go mostly ignored), the somber mood, the baleful liturgy—I loved it all. I’d always found public Judaism a little too loud for my comfort, too raucous and undignified. But this? This, to my mind, was exactly as a religious observance should be.

The solemnity was unparalleled, and even the darkness and the sitting in a circle on the floor I found pretty cool—a sort of meeting of the Jewish Midnight Society from Are You Afraid of the Dark?

I’ve always found the gloom-and-doom books of Tanakh the most poetic and beautiful, the easiest to connect to, so naturally I adored Eichah itself. Marinating in sadness is second nature to me (while being around excessively upbeat people can be seriously alienating), and all in all I felt as at home as I’ve ever been attending any kind of communal religious observance.

I guess I didn’t love it THAT much, though, because after that one year I never did get around to doing anything for Tisha B’av. In the end, much as I enjoyed my Eichah experience, more than anything else I was left feeling that if I liked this so much, and services for basically every other holiday and Shabbat so (relatively) little, perhaps communal Judaism just wasn’t for me.

On Becoming Good

One thing that’s always given me pause about becoming more observant is my deep-seated suspicion that I’d be one of those people who use religion as a justification to be self-righteous jerks. Given the fact that a). this is a highly sensitive topic in my family, and b). I kind of already was a self-righteous jerk to begin with, I knew I’d need to tread very, very carefully.

It wasn’t until relatively recently, though that I started to think religion could help me be a better person, or that I was even particularly concerned with my own goodness or lack thereof. But the past year and a bit have showed me that it was, in fact, something I needed to start caring about a whole lot more.

I often joke that I’ve inherited all of both my parents’ worst qualities. But the thing is, it’s not entirely a joke. I am self-absorbed, lazy (I’d like to think there’s more to it than that, but I can’t be sure I’m not just making excuses), very much a taker rather than a giver. My default mode is bitter and resentful; I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so ruled by jealousy as I am. And I’m extremely judgmental, despite being a total train wreck of a human being myself.

Sometimes I wonder why I had to be born with this frankly terrible personality. Why couldn’t I have been good? Why couldn’t I have any of the attributes that would make getting through life easy, or at least easier? Now that my life is back on the upswing, it’s easy to be philosophical about it, to accept that for whatever reason overcoming my many bad impulses is a necessary challenge set for me. But at other times, when things have looked less hopeful, I’ve often felt that the kindest thing to do, both for myself and for others, is to retreat into a hermit life where I have minimal opportunities to spew my toxicity out into the world.

Anyway, since I’ve really and truly started to see Judaism as more than just another lifestyle choice, I’ve started to see, in a vague way, how prayer and my one-sided D&Ms with God and generally making more of an effort to abide by any sort of code of ethics could all be tools toward being a less terrible person. While I’ve found particular teachings and concepts here and there that have been helpful in a more targeted way, it’s been sort of at random. I was vaguely aware that Mussar was something that dealt with some of the stuff I struggle with, but until a couple of weeks ago I never really delved into it. (Why? Probably the same semi-inexplicable reason most of the stuff I aspire to do remains undone.)

I finally read a sort of intro-to Mussar book Luftmentsch recommended to me, recently and I think also back in the distant Before Times, pre-my COVID midlife crisis and my genuine interest in bettering myself, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: One Man’s Journey to Rediscover a Jewish Spiritual Tradition by Alan Morinis—and now I wish I’d read it a lot sooner, though maybe I wouldn’t have been ready to internalize it.

It’s a highly accessible, non-intimidating introduction to the self-improvement practice of Mussar, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone curious. After finding himself at fault in a fairly disastrous business misstep, Morinis turned to classic Mussar texts for comfort, and eventually got a rabbi to take him on as a student. The book is a combination of a memoir of that journey plus a sort of starter manual to Mussar—he has a second book, Everyday Holiness: the Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, which focuses more on the applied practice, and that’s up next on my list.

I’ve yet to really apply any of the techniques (though I plan to as I work my way through Everyday Holiness), but this description, shared with Morinis by his rabbi instructor, spoke to me very deeply: “the practice teaches us how to open up a little space between the match and the fuse. Instead of being catapulted blindly in a random direction by an automatic response to something that pushes one of our buttons, we foster awareness, and so gift ourselves with the spaciousness to choose the course that is good for the soul.”

“Putting space between the match and the fuse” sounds an awful lot like some of the things I’ve been discussing at length in therapy over the past many months, and some of what I’ve been writing here too—impulse control, patience, discipline, making non-terrible decisions. I need an awful lot of help with all of these, and while I think I’ve made some progress already, I’m still very far from where I want to be, which is for these things to come naturally, not to be a constant struggle, not to mess up so much. And I’m willing to try pretty much any kind of tested, practical path I can find.

I also liked how concrete and real this approach seems—the opposite of all that “uniting your life force with the Shekinah” stuff I can’t stand about Kabbalah. There are clearly delineated exercises with practical steps—meditations; journaling; the first time Morinis met with the rabbi who ended up teaching him, he was advised to carry a rubber band in his pocket and put it around his wrist when he started feeling impatient and tempted to snap at his family. It all seems like real, doable (if sometimes emotionally daunting) stuff. I guess the big question is whether I can muster up the motivation to actually follow through, since that too is a quality I desperately need to work on.

Chabad Under Your Floorboards

Once, when I was living in England, I read an article about how national (international?) supermarket chain Tesco was taking over the country, taking over more and more of the little guys and opening up locations, well, just about everywhere. The title, as I recall, was “Tesco Under Your Floorboards,” or something very like it.

Back in the US, though, it’s not Tesco that seems to be on the verge of popping up under my floorboards, but Chabad. The last three places I’ve lived have been, at most, a five-minute walk from a Chabad, and ideologically Chabad’s reach seems equally everywhere.

I was talking to Luftmentsch about my last post on Kabbalah, and he said he thought Chabad has a lot to do with why it seems to be just about everywhere these days. And I think that’s right.

Even for me, as much as I’m like “Ugh, Kabbalah, get it away from me” now, Chabad was my first experience of organized Judaism, from probably ages about three to seven, and very likely it’s shaped my view of the religion more than I know, and certainly it’s impacted my idea of what does and does not qualify as real Judaism.

I don’t recall any sefira talk, but there was certainly a lot of Moshiach (the Rebbe was still alive during my heyday in Chabad, so I never got to experience that aspect of things). By contrast, in the Reform Hebrew school I attended from ages nine to twelve, at which point I wore my mother down enough to let me drop out, there was zero Moshiach. (In between the two, I spent one year at a more rigorous Conservative Hebrew school. At the end of the year, they wanted to hold me back a grade because my Hebrew was so poor, hence the switch to Reform. I don’t remember much about it, but I’m guessing they didn’t talk about Moshiach either.)

The two seemed to espouse more or less entirely unrelated theologies. While Chabad was all Moshiach and redemption, Reform was all tikkun olam. At Chabad, they talked about how God knows everything you’re thinking, at all times. I didn’t like that. It made me uncomfortable. In Reform, they talked about the evils of animal testing and why we should boycott the big bad brands that partook. I didn’t like that either. (Which I suppose sort of set the stage for my subsequent futile quest for the mythical Jewish institution that’s just right, Goldilocks-style.)

I don’t recall what I thought of all the Moshiach talk at the time, whether I believed it, but as an adult, I find the constant motif of Moshiach, and a return to the Temple and Jerusalem in all its glory, incredibly appealing. That’s not to say I believe in it, necessarily – I’m not entirely sure to what extent I do or don’t, to be honest – but more that I find it moving on a metaphorical level, or perhaps some sort of halfway point someplace between symbolism and reality. Yearning for what’s lost, for a return to a quasi-mythical state of innocence and purity, holding out hope against hope for its return – that all resonates with me very strongly. (Is that because Chabad’s burrowed its way under my own psychological floorboards? Perhaps.) I suppose I’m more comfortable with it sort of staying neatly tucked away in the liturgy, though, as seems to be the case in more mainstream traditional settings, as opposed to being shouted out Chabad-style.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m down on Chabad; I’m not. I think what they do is, for the most part, really admirable – as is their success at a time when so many other sectors and movements are struggling. I applaud the Lubavitchers for creating religious spaces that are, by and large, welcoming to people coming from different backgrounds. Unfortunately, observant Jewish communities by and large aren’t the most welcoming, at least not in my experience, and it can be awfully intimidating walking into an Orthodox or even trad egal or observant Conservative shul as an outsider. And as much as I feel woefully ungrounded in Jewish knowledge, I’d probably know a whole lot less if I hadn’t had those years of Chabad education. I guess sometimes I just sort of wish some branch of Judaism a little more aligned with what I’m looking for were doing a similar thing, taking the lead in the direction of tomorrow’s Jewish world… but maybe that’s just me on my Goldilocks quest again.

Judaism Without Kabbalah?

So I don’t actually have a huge amount to say on the topic – I’m more looking to spark a conversation with my more Jewishly knowledgeable readers (which is all of my readers).

Basically, Kabbalah is not for me. I just cannot with the sefirot. When someone starts talking about yesod and binah, my eyes roll into the back of my head. Tzimtzum, gathering sparks – doesn’t do it for me. I don’t want to hear about the Zohar. But this stuff seems pretty pervasive in 21st-century Judaism. Or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places.

I tried, really I did. A while back I started watching a Tanya class on Zoom led by a Chabad rebbetzin I follow on Instagram. That’s not something I’ve ever felt drawn to, but I find the instructor likable, and, perhaps more importantly, her life seems sufficiently challenging that I feel like she might have something to teach me. (I am very suspicious of people with too-easy lives, or people who seem like they have them, although that’s probably a topic for another time.)

She does a chapter or two a week, and by now it’s been going on for quite a number of sessions. And at first I was like, “Wow, self-improvement, impulse control, this is totally what I need!” And at first, I was into it. But now, while there are some nuggets of wisdom, which is why I keep tuning in (or catching the recordings, anyway), as it goes deeper into the text I find myself drifting more and more.

It’s the kabbalah. I just can’t.

Now, I know Chabad, or any kind of Hasidic philosophy, is not quite the thing for the Kabbalah-averse Jew (though I do find some Hasidic thought very powerful, generally the kind that sounds as if it could’ve come out of a modern self-help book). But what is?

Is it possible to lead a full and intellectually engaged Jewish life while steering clear of this stuff? (Judaism had a solid enough run before Kabbalah came into the picture, so it seems like it should be possible.) And am I seriously missing out by wanting to do just that?

Someone Is WRONG in the Jewniverse!

Long time, no blog. Work got really busy (which is kind of annoying, though I would dearly love for my finances to return to their pre-COVID state, and I realize those two things are somewhat of a package deal) and I’ve, um, also been spending a lot of time texting Luftmentsch, now that we’re back together. And then the longer I go without writing, the harder it feels to get back into it.

But I want to get back to writing at least semi-regularly. I do find it helpful in terms of sorting out my thoughts, and it also lets me tap into part of myself that I find difficult to express elsewhere.

Anyway, I’ve mentioned there’s some stuff that triggered my religious journey that I would like to discuss but can’t because it has to do with my job. And while that still holds, I’ve found something else I can use as a sort of vague imperfect proxy. It’s a new-ish documentary called

American Birthright, by an American-Israeli filmmaker in (I think) her early thirties who found herself really, really bothered when her younger sister got engaged to a non-Jews and decided to make a documentary about her process of working through why exactly she felt the way she did. Naturally, she finds the real problem isn’t her sister but rather her confusion about her own connection to Judaism, and she ends up going to sem, lapping up all the traditional kiruv wisdom, and living the frum life.

I was able to stream it free through a virtual film festival last month. I figured it might make for some good background listening while I did some mindless work, although in the end it drew me in more than I expected, because it spoke to some stuff I’ve been feeling pretty intensely over the past little while. Although in my case it’s not because I’m upset about my sister’s impending nuptials (I don’t even have a sister). Let’s just say I work for a Jewish business, and both the scope of my role and the business itself have changed pretty drastically since the start of the pandemic (if you’re really curious, and you promise not to out me, you can email me and I’ll you what it is), in a way that has provoked some pretty intense “someone is WRONG in the Jewniverse!” feels.

But, just like the American Birthright filmmaker, I eventually came to the realization that the person doing it wrong wasn’t the person steering the change of direction, and it wasn’t the people who partake in whatever product or service the business provides, either. It was me.  It’s the Baal Shem Tov mirror thing: I was bothered by the business’s approach to Judaism because I was bothered by my own approach to Judaism. To whatever extent that the business espouses what feels to me like a vapid, soulless Judaism lite with all the life sucked out of it – I realized I wasn’t exactly doing any better. I saw that I could continue stewing over it self-righteously, bitter that my particular wants and needs were not being catered to, or I could work on making some changes. And so I have been, however slowly and imperfectly and confusedly.

I still have my moments, sure, but for the most part now that I’m working on my own stuff, I’m much more at peace with the whole enterprise. A lot of people really connect with what this business offers, many of them in possession of Jewish identities much, much more marginal and fraught than mine. I can be happy for them, that they have this and it works for them, while simultaneously acknowledging that it’s not something that works for me, and that’s okay.

Now, there’ve been other things pushing me toward the observant life, too, that have nothing to do with my workplace. One is being really, really sad and alone and needing an adult imaginary friend; and wondering if maybe religion really could be a help in my quest to become a less terrible person and lead a less empty and meaningless life. I’ve already written about that pretty extensively.

The other is my relationship with Luftmentsch, both when we were together and when we weren’t.

If I hadn’t already been toying, on and off, with the idea of a more observant life, I doubt I would’ve considered him as a viable prospect in the first place. But even though I was, and even though there was something undeniably appealing, as there always is for me, about attaching myself to a man who could whisk me off into another world, another life, part of me resisted it.

Possibly that was for the best – it’s rarely a great move to make big life changes primarily for the purpose of accommodating someone else.

If COVID hadn’t happened, I might have slowly worked my way up to wanting it, forging my own genuine connection. But COVID did happen, and my already precarious mental health situation swerved wildly out of control, and for a long while it looked like things were over between us.

And during that time, my work stuff got weird. And I finally felt compelled to take some steps I just couldn’t quite manage to get behind before, like (kinda sorta) keeping Shabbat.

I guess the moral of this story, if there is one, is that life works in weird and unexpected ways.

Shabbat Reading

This week, I spent most of Shabbat reading two books that (unexpectedly) made for a very interesting counterpoint. The first was Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The second was Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice by Rachel B. Gross.

If you’re reading this blog, I assume you know who Rabbi Sacks was. Rachel Gross is an up-and-coming scholar of American Jewish Studies; I used to enjoy following her on Twitter, when I could still be bothered to go on Twitter. Her book is certainly an interesting look at some of the ways contemporary American Jews choose to identify with Judaism.

But I’m not sure I can buy the author’s argument that participating in the Jewish nostalgia industry, by finding out what shtetl your great-great -grandparents lived in, or eating a pastrami sandwich, or touring some or other now-defunct historic synagogue, or buying your kid a Rebecca Rubin American Girl doll are all things we should accept as Jewish religious activities. Or maybe accept is the wrong word; I’m very much of the opinion that it’s not a good look to police other people’s Judaism, and if this is what works for some subset of Jews, more power to them. I suppose it’s more that it seems mildly, if benignly, delusion to consider these things actual manifestations of religious practice, rather than just say it like it is: not every Jewish person wants to, or is able to, connect with Judaism as a religion, and some people form an identity around the culture instead.

On one hand, yes, religion and spirituality look different in Judaism and Christianity, and definitions based on faith and attending services aren’t necessarily looking at the full picture. But for a long time I very much was one of those people who felt like I was having a religious experience by cooking Jewish food and reading All-of-a-Kind Family. And while I do think there’s value and meaning in all of that, I just can’t get behind the whole postmodern relativist idea that Judaism is whatever you want it to be. Ultimately, it is what it is, and everyone can choose to opt in or out to various degrees (and I don’t believe it’s a moral failing to lean toward the opting out side), but can we just accept things for what they are and stop trying to force them into things they’re not?

It reminds me of this obnoxious public service sort of ad campaign that ran on the New York subway a number of years ago. I’ve forgotten the details, but every poster was, in essence, a photo of a tween girl (a very diverse lineup, naturally) with a whole bunch of “I” statements written across it. Like, “I am strong. I am brave. I am creative.” And then at the bottom, each and every one said “I am beautiful.”

The thing is, not all of these girls were beautiful. And it was painfully clear to me that whoever came up with this campaign was using the word “beautiful” as a stand-in for something like “a worthy human being.” The whole thing drove me crazy, every time I saw one of these dumb posters. Like, No, words mean things! There’s not much good to be done (and potentially a lot of harm) in teaching little girls that they’re beautiful when, realistically, that’s not how most people will perceive them out in the world. Equally, though, we shouldn’t be teaching girls that beauty or lack thereof is what determines their value.

In Morality, Rabbi Sacks takes up, among other things, a sort of argument against the current dominance of that sort of mindset that anything can be whatever anyone wants it to be, and for a world where words, and actions, mean things. While I didn’t agree with every detail, necessarily, on the whole I found it very compelling. I do feel increasingly alienated from wokeness and identity politics and cancel culture and intersectionality, very much so. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now.

I want to talk about one particular section of the book, that while perhaps not objectively the most thought-provoking or compelling, spoke to me very deeply. In this section, Sacks was discussing a BBC show he once produced:

I wanted to explain… the important but difficult ideas of repentance and behavioral change that are at the heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic. How could you do so without religious terminology or iconography?

In the end, I realized that the best way of doing so was through the idea of addiction. We know how much harm we do to ourselves when we come addicted to alcohol, drugs, or other such activity like gambling. But it is extremely difficult to wean ourselves away from such habits, however self-destructive they are.

What has to happen is  something very like repentance. First, you have to realize you are doing something wrong. Second, you have to make something like a public admission of this. Third, you have to commit to behavioral change, however hard that may be. Weaning yourself off addictive drugs was the nearest I could come to weaning yourself from bad habits and wrong deeds.

I’ve always felt that I have an addictive personality, though the things that cause problems for me are all of the non-chemical variety. These things are many, but ultimately most of them come down to selfishness and laziness and generally not being a very good person. I think that is just my nature, and while I wish it were not, until recently I didn’t have terribly much desire to fight it. Fighting my addictions was hard, and I didn’t want to do anything hard if I didn’t absolutely have to. I wanted life to be easy, much more than I wanted it to be good. And I suppose I always surrounded myself with enablers, people who put up with my bad behavior, and, for the most part, didn’t pressure me to grow or change. I thought I could keep going like that, indefinitely.

But back to Rabbi Sacks. While he was producing this program, looking at repentance through the lens of addiction, he visited a facility for teen drug addicts. Speaking to the director,

I asked her, simply, “What is it that you give them that gives them the strength to change?” I will never forget her reply… “We are the first people they have met who care enough about them to say, ‘No.’”

And that’s the thing that happened to me that set all of this in motion. Someone cared enough about me to say no. And while it hurt me probably more than anything’s ever hurt me in my life, I see now that it was what I needed. It was my rock bottom moment, the thing that set me off on this weird path of DIY spiritual rehab, on my own path to morality.

No One Belongs Here Less Than You

During the Omer, I’ve been following a bunch of Instagram pages that share daily reminders, with prompts about what sort of character quality each day corresponds to, and questions to check in with yourself about how you’re doing with whatever the thing is.

I am literal garbage when it comes to each and every quality. Love, compassion, discipline – you name it, I’ve failed time and time again. There was one in particular that really got me going; the question was, “Am I pushing away the compassion that Hashem wants to bestow upon me?” Um, YES. Yes I am.

Why? Because I’m scared of what it could lead to (and also I feel like I don’t deserve it). I’d rather cling to the memory that once something good might’ve been on the verge of happening for me than face the reality of everything that comes next. I’m afraid of finding something so precious that to lose it would destroy me. I’m afraid of shouldering the responsibility, afraid I won’t be strong enough to reach the finish line, and so I never start at all.

There’s this short story by Miranda July called “Roy Spivey.” I first read it when it appeared in the New Yorker during the summer of 2007, and I have thought of it probably at least once a week since then.

I have a love-hate relationship with Miranda July. She embodied all that was laughable about mid-2000s hipster culture, but at the same time some of her work really touched me. If I were ever to write a memoir, it would probably be titled No One Belongs Here Less Than You, partly because I think it’s a funny takeoff on her debut short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You but mostly because it is a painfully accurate statement on what it feels like to be me in approximately 97.5% of all life situations. There’s another story in that book, “This Person,” that I have some big thoughts about too, but I don’t think they belong in this post.

Anyway, “Roy Spivey” is about a young woman who ends up seated next to a married movie star on a plane. They hit it off, make a connection, and at the end he gives her his number on a scrap of paper, but with one digit missing at the end, for her to memorize lest the paper fall into the wrong hands. I think the last number was 4.

The woman never calls him, but throughout her life the number 4 becomes a sort of talisman she recites over and over to herself, during sex, while giving birth, on the way to pick up her delinquent child from the principal’s office.

One day, when she’s married and middle-aged, she has this revelation that she was actually supposed to use the number to call the movie star all those many years ago. It was meant to be a real thing, not a signifier of a fantastical alternate life never to be lived.

And I do something similar with all these kindnesses, these fragile, living things that were always meant to take flight but end up dead in my pockets, collected as trophies, as talismans of what could have been.

For a long time it felt like everything was frozen, in hibernation, and now life is moving so fast again. I’m scared. I don’t know how to do this. I wish I could’ve been born one of those people who embraces love fearlessly. But I wasn’t, and I think that, more than anything else, is my test in life.

E Is for Exile

Since I know some of my readers follow Luftmentsch’s blog, the time has come for me to come clean about something:

I am Luftmentsch’s ex E (because, well, my actual first name starts with an E). He knows. We’re talking. It’s cool.

I am aware that this sounds like some high school Livejournal-level blogging drama, but I promise that is the furthest thing from my intention.

Okay, that’s it for my PSA. Back to your regularly scheduled content shortly.

Shabbat Thoughts, Take 2

This Shabbat felt heavier and less hopeful than last week (maybe I was just feeling extra good then because getting the shot gave me a rare wave of optimism?). Certainly I did not do as good a job at not worrying, between some heavy stuff on my mind regarding my own life and the overall sorry state of the world. I know the Jewish world is very torn up about what happened in Meron, which is absolutely devastating. I am too, but I’m equally if not more distressed about the COVID situation in India. I suppose the victims in each of these tragedies feel equally distant to me.

Something I’ve realized is that while for the most part I’m enjoying my Shabbat observance, such as it is, and I do think it enhances my week, I really don’t enjoy the aftermath.

Toward the end I’m basically just watching the clock, counting down the minutes until I can see what I’ve missed on the internet. And then once I do log back on, it feels like there’s so much to catch on it stresses me out a lot, even though most of the stuff is both stupid and optional (some of it is work, but I don’t usually get a ton of work emails on Saturdays, thankfully).

I’m sure it’s made worse by the fact that Shabbat ends really late right now, so I’m left with lots I want to catch up on and not very many hours to do it, if I’m going to get to sleep at a reasonable time.

I’ve never been much for taking vacations, for the same reason – however good the time away is, the unpleasantness of catching up upon returning never seem quite worth it.

In general, I try to keep everything in my life sort of flat, without too many external ups and downs, because I am given to very high highs and very low lows, and it often feels like there’s an either/or choice to be made between being able to do the most basic things expected of an independently functioning adult (primarily staying employed), and putting myself in situations likely to set off my overactive emotions.

I don’t think this is a great way to live. I mean, I know it isn’t. Since the pandemic hit, I’ve been feeling big regrets for all the things I didn’t do, places I didn’t go, when I had the chance, because, I reasoned at the time, the disruption to my routine, my equilibrium, would’ve been just too much. I suppose committing to Shabbat is how I’ve chosen to start, in a way.

Other thoughts:

  • I started reading Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, as recommended by Luftmentsch. I’ve only read the first chapter so far, about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. The sort of intense, full-body joyous communion with God and self and humanity described therein, is enrapturing, but it also feels impossible.
  • I want to start incorporating some Shabbat davening, but it seems overwhelming and I’m not sure where to start – or if I should just hold off until I’m fully vaxed and feeling brave enough to try some synagogues (and that’s if they’re even allowing random non-members these days).
  • I’m still thinking about Israel. Purely based on online research, I think the two places I’d be inclined to seriously look into would be Pardes (as recommended to me by some people on here) and a place called Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya, which is part of Shapell’s/Darche Noam yeshiva. I’m aware that those would be two quite different options. There’s a seminary called Nishmat that I think is sort of in the middle of those two, ideologically, that seems like it would be a good fit for me except that their program seems firmly targeted at recent college grads. I know a lot of people go to Neve, but that seems not my style. And then I wonder if I’m being delusional to even imagine I will actually pull off something so ambitious as to go anywhere at all.

Joyous Slipping Your Leash On

Sometimes I come across something – a poem, a song, a quotation, sometimes even something I’ve written myself – and I know it’s got something important to tell me, but I’m not quite sure what that thing is yet. And then, later – sometimes weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years – something will happen that brings it all into focus. Like, Oh. So that’s what that was all about.

This poem is one of them. I first encountered it a whole bunch of years ago – I’m pretty sure I found it on Livejournal or Tumblr, and it’s been about a decade since I’ve used either of those – and only last summer, after I was tested in a big way and failed, spectacularly, did it finally make sense why it had stuck in my mind for all these years.

The whole thing is relevant, but it this is the part where it really picks up:

I have nothing but the time and space I’ve been pining for now,
and I am using this opportunity to try and remember
why I thought this was a good idea.
I think it had something to do with Escape,
which has permanent offices in the romance division of my brain
and ground troops in my solar plexus.
The flight instinct comes on quicksand,
muscles out all rational thought,
starts Morse coding my limbic system with
complex dots and dashes for strange verbs that mean,
roughly translated: “joyous chewing your leash off,”
and “fire without readiness or aim.”
It always feels so right to go,
like it’s the only story my body knows by heart

To the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, Mindy Nettifee

The reason this poem spoke to me is that I, too, am a runner, a flight risk. Escape has permanent offices in the romance division of my brain (and probably every other division too), and I am known for nothing if not firing without readiness or aim. I’ve spent most of my life running from just about everything, but most of all from myself. Evidently, my subconscious recognized this tendency in me way before I was able to accept it, or understand it, or verbalize it.

I’ve always been impatient, pathologically so. I can’t handle living with uncertainty. I’ve done some ridiculously foolish, destructive things because of it. I’d rather put an end to an unsettling situation myself than let it drag on, even if there’s potential for something very good to come of it. I’ve ruined some wonderful things this way.

This Yom Kippur was a big turning point in my religious journey. It was one of the first times I really felt how Judaism and God and prayer could be a support for me in a very dark time. It was also a time when I was thinking about this poem quite a lot, reading it over and over to myself, having only just pieced all of this together.

And as I was reciting the Viduy, for what felt like the millionth time, there was this one line, “for the sin we have sinned before You by casting off the yoke.”

“Casting off the yoke.” “Joyous chewing your leash off.”  

Oh. So that’s what that was all about.

I think that’s where God comes in, for me. Believing there is a God who’s in charge of all of this, who has some sort of grand plan that somehow or other will be for the best, that everything isn’t solely cause-and-effected by my shoddy choices – whether it’s ultimately true or not, this might be the one thing that can stop me from pulling that trigger. “Let go and let God,” as certain cringey Christians are wont to say. Except maybe they’re right. Casting on that yoke of – I don’t want to say obedience, exactly, but something like that – to a higher power, Someone who in return can help me shoulder the terrible burden of being myself, and doing it with love, not resentment. There’s something thrilling, exhilarating about casting off that yoke, slipping off that leash, and going it alone, the freedom of it, no one to answer to, but finally I can see that it’s not the best way, not for me.

Of course, all that is easier said than done. Since Yom Kippur, I’ve been trying to get to “joyous slipping my leash on,” which means getting right with God, sure, but also with what few people are still left in my life and, maybe most importantly, with myself. They’re all leashes in their own ways – religion, relationships, selfhood – and for a long time I thought that was something to run from. But sometimes a leash can keep you in line, keep you safe, keep you from getting hit by a car. Sometimes a leash means love. And sometimes that makes the loss of freedom worth it.

It’s slow going. There are a lot of ups and downs. I’m still far from where I want to be. But at least now I’m on the way.

I have spent the past many months learning to face what irritates me with compassion, or trying to. Learning that I can’t change my family, and learning to love them anyway, as they are. Learning that it’s time to surrender in my epic decades-long battle against reality. Learning to face up to all the things I’ve done wrong, the people I’ve hurt. Learning not to be so selfish. Learning how to step up and be there for people I love even when my own dumb drama and issues make it really, really hard.

I don’t think it’s true that you have to learn to love yourself before anyone else can love you. But I do think, at least for me, it was necessary to get really, really real with myself about my faults and my flaws and my failings, and to accept that ultimately they are mine and no one else’s, before being in any way capable of maintaining functional human relationships.

I think I’ve just about slipped that leash on. I think I’m finally ready to be a real person. The question is if it isn’t too late for anything good to come of it.