Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Daddy and the Zhlub: Should baalei teshuvah be ashamed of their families?

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I used to resent my parents for not being religious.

(Mommy, if you're reading this, keep going - there's a happy ending.)

It was a baal teshuvah thing.  One of those not-nice things they don't tell you about in the rosey-coloured-glasses books about being a baal teshuvah. 

Do we all (all of us crazy BT’s) resent our parents because they're not frum?  At the time, I thought it was resentment, but now, I think it was more like shame.

Are we, as BT’s, ashamed that our parents didn’t give us the advantages of a day school education?  That they didn’t teach us to keep milk and meat dishes separate?  That they sent us to inadequate Hebrew schools that taught us only to resent our Jewish identity and the loss of a sleep-in on Sunday?

I’ll admit it:  I was.

(If you weren’t, then you’re a better BT than me!)

I did my best to make up for lost time, in part by pretending my parents didn’t exist.  And I think I wasn’t the only one.  I think that the frum world encouraged us to turn our backs on where we’d come from.  My husband was a geir, so in his case, the feeling was less subtle, but even with my own Jewish family, we got the message on every side that we would have to make a clean break, a fresh start.

I remember telling someone about my Nanny once, after I’d become frum.  She was a devout Presbyterian and took care of our Jewish family for over 60 years.  For Nanny, there was no contradiction in this.  She loved her own faith, and she loved ours as well.  (That was Nanny; she could love everybody.)

And the person I was telling said, “Well, you never know.  Maybe she was secretly serving you non-kosher food.” (I didn’t bother explaining that there would have been no point bringing in non-kosher food… coals to Newcastle, as they say.) “…Or trying to get you to convert.  Unless they’re Jewish, you really never know.”

Believe me, I know.  With Nanny, you knew where you stood.

But I got so many variations on that message that I couldn’t help absorbing it.  Unless they’re Jewish, the right kind of Jewish, Jewish like us, they’re simply not part of what you’re doing in your life now.

I pushed my family away, I admit it.  Partly this was a natural thing because of the age I was at the time.  But partly, it was because everything I heard told me that to be Jewish – properly Jewish – I had to leave the path they’d started me on and forge my own way through the forest.

It was tough sometimes: spending Shabbos and yom tov as a guest in strangers’ homes (even though some were lovely, and ceased to be strangers immediately).  Sometimes, it was lovely, being embraced by the community.  But sometimes, it was very lonely.  Sometimes… I missed my family.  I was tired of saying no all the time.  I was tired of denying who I was and where I’d come from.

I was tired of being ashamed.

It was Rabbi Manis Friedman who changed the way I thought.  He says all the time, “why reinvent the wheel?”  Everybody’s parents had something valuable to share, even if they weren’t 100% perfect (and whose parents are?).  Except he said it more vividly.  He said it so you’d remember.

Apparently, a student came to him (he teaches baalos teshuva – Jewish women who are becoming religious in Minnesota), and started telling him how terrible her mother was.  She did this, and this, and this.  Just an awful person.

So Rabbi Friedman said, “Wow, that is terrible.  So why not just shoot her?”  (I’ll never forget that line; it’s so blunt and raw.)

The student was shocked.  She started saying, “Well, she’s not THAT bad!” and listing off a few good qualities of her mother.  Because, of course, her mother did have good qualities after all.

All our parents are like that.  Some good in them, some bad.  Whether they’re frum or not.

(He also said, “Quote your parents to your children,” which I love and have tried to live by ever since, though it’s not always easy.)

But that wasn’t the moment that finally made it click for me.

For me, it happened the year I was working in a large Orthodox synagogue.  Members came in all the time, dropping off money, talking to the rabbi, whatever. 

And there was this one guy there, he was a big donor, so everybody in the office kowtowed to him.   But here’s the thing:  he was a zhlub.  Just a total slob.  I will admit that this came into my evil mind the minute he’d walk through the door:  “What a big, fat slob.”  I admit it, I thought that.  Uncharitable, I know, but there it is.

If he was just big, or just fat, that wouldn’t have been a problem.  The problem was that he acted like he owned the place because he was a big macher.  And we were all forced to pretend he did, too, acting super-polite and rushing to do whatever he asked.

One day, he bumbled into the office with some demand or other, and he was still wearing his tefillin.  I had also just gotten to know his daughter through my kids’ school, and suddenly, I saw him in a new light:  he was her dad.

He was her dad, he was frum, here he was in tefillin and everything… and I would take my father over him any day of the week.

My father was a mentsch, darn it.  A real mentsch.  A sweet, humble guy who said it like it was.  The kind of guy who never missed a wedding, where he’d drink just a little too much and have just one cigarette, outside in the cold.  The kind of guy who said Kaddish every day and never missed Yizkor for his own non-religious parents.  The kind of guy who’d take his grandkids to every amusement park he possibly could.

My father was many things, and he dressed like a hobo whenever he could because clothes cost money, but he was no zhlub. 

He was snacking on an apple once, and he looked at in disgust before saying, “I’d rather have chips.”  Always, the delicious snacks called out to him, and he was proud to have the willpower to resist.  That willpower also made him the kind of guy who, when he finds out that he might need a heart transplant, exercises non-stop to whip that broken heart back into shape (and succeeds, by the way). 

The kind of guy who, when he finds out he’s dying anyway, drives to visit you so he can break the news in person and then sit and tell you all about what you’ve meant to him and made sure you were okay.

He was my father, and I’m proud.

Why am I thinking about this now?

A friend here gave a dvar Torah the other day for the yahrzeit of her grandfather; a simple man who was always studying Torah, always immersed in a siddur. 

At one point in my life, I would have given anything to have a grandfather like that instead of mine, with their floppy satin kippahs.  Or my grandmothers, their kitchens brimming with bacon and shrimp.

But there was something in her voice as she described him – that he was learning Torah (as in Chumash, that simple thing that only girls learn), and not Gemara (the manly study of scholarly minds), that I thought I recognized.

Even though this friend grew up religious, she’d gotten these messages, too.  That her grandfather was “not as much” as some other grandfathers, because he wasn’t immersed in Talmud.  He wasn’t as holy… maybe because he was an electrician, bringing light into the world, and not a rabbi, putting folks to sleep.  He wasn’t the kind of ancestor she should be proud of; he was just a “poshiter yid,” a simple Jew.

We’ve got to get past this shame.  All of us, BTs or otherwise.

Manis Friedman says the answer is putting our parents on a pedestal, even if (like many modern parents), they don’t really want to be there:

The child keeps the parent on a pedestal.  We're never equals; we're never pals. Because the parents did for the children what the children could never repay…

Whatever else is going on, [whether] you admire them, you don't admire them… you have parents. 

What do you do about those things that your parents do or say that leave you unimpressed, to put it mildly?

If they're on a pedestal, which is where they should be, you entitle them; they're entitled.  To make mistakes, to fail in other areas, and they're still on the pedestal. You can't ever repay the debt, even if they do nothing more for you. 

(Watch the short video this quote came from here.)

Respecting them, honouring them, keeping them on their pedestals; that’s the bare minimum. 

Most of us, I think, can do better.  We have to find that which is good about our parents (and grandparents, shrimp and all), that which we love, and hold it up proudly instead of slinking around in shame.

Should baalei teshuvah be ashamed?  Should any of us?  Nope.  We should find the good in our families and embrace it, honouring it as much as possible… even if we walk a different path.

If you think about it, even though I made my own decision to become religious, it must have come from my parents in some way.  They sent me to Hebrew school (and only later did I find out what a leap that was for my father), they brought me to shul.  They made lovely dinners on Friday night. 

I met an old friend for coffee the week before we made aliyah and he wasn’t surprised at all to hear that I was moving to Israel.  “Your family always was very religious,” he said.

He meant “very religious compared to the other Jewish kids in our public school,” but suddenly, years later, it resonated. 

Yes, we always were very religious.  My parents worked hard to give me a Yiddishkeit I could grow into.

That’s not a reason to be ashamed.  That’s a reason to be very, very proud.  And to realize that I would never trade my parents, my upbringing, for anything else – or anyone else – that might have made me in some way less the person that I am today.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


1 comment:

  1. In my day in NCSY being a "success" now known as BT was an ideal situation. My parents were so upset by my decision to become religious that I had no other emotion other than try to survive it. It's not that they ever praised anything I did... another story.
    Also, I was too busy becoming "me" in a public school and society that had never heard of anyone being more religious than their parents.
    A different generation no doubt. This was the mid-1960's when I was a rare animal. My best friend who was my partner in charting these unknown waters is still my very best friend today, the one who is hosting me in NY when I go, Shabbat, Purim whatever.

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