I grew up in a secular Jewish home, and converted to Orthodox Judaism in my twenties (I converted because my mother wasn’t Jewish, only my father). Initially I was so gung-ho and extremely meticulous and passionate about my observance, I was on such a spiritual high and it was amazing. But it was also difficult to balance my new life with the old one, particularly with my family who found it very difficult. Eventually it became too difficult to balance the two worlds and I ended up having a total crisis and slipping back into non-observance. Over the years I have slowly started to come back to it – I found a modern orthodox shul and started going there, and the slightly lower pressure has been good for me I think. I started keeping kosher again, even though sometimes outside of the house I do still eat treif occasionally, but I’m doing it less and less.
However, I always knew that the most important thing is keeping Shabbos properly, and even though it can be difficult, I also missed it, and I think I knew deep down I would come back to it. I recently started keeping Shabbos again, which simultaneously is making me really happy but also bringing to the surface some stress about my two worlds and how to live in both. Shabbos by Shabbos, it is so beautiful, but then I start thinking about the next time a friend or relative is getting married on a Shabbos but I won’t be able to go. Or I imagine my family’s reaction when they find out I am keeping it again – I know they will freak out that I am becoming “super-religious” again. I just don’t want to tell them as I don’t want to hear any negative emotions about it. I suppose I also feel the pressure and I don’t want to fail like last time. I want to enjoy it, to thrive and for my friends and family to see that I am happy and that this is the best way to live.
I think that last time one of the reasons I slipped was because I was putting too much pressure on myself to do everything 100% strictly at once (although, of course, you kind of have to when converting!) so I am thinking the best way is to do bit-by-bit. For example, I struggle so much with covering up sometimes – sometimes it can feel suffocating and like I am having to hide myself away – I know that’s not the thinking but it is hard not to feel like that. But on the other hand, I find the mitzvah of hair covering so beautiful and I really passionately want to cover my hair when I get married, so I know I will have to get there eventually, as I can’t be wearing a sheitel with a bikini! But the idea of my covered hair helps encourage me to cover up at least a bit more.
So I am really asking you, what is the best way to introduce observance into my life again, in a way that is sustainable? How can I make it work this time? I am trying to get out of the mindset of “all or nothing” as I think this tends just to force you towards “nothing”, but then really, if you are going to live a Torah lifestyle, it really is all or nothing, isn’t it? It’s not only partly true, and we are not only partly obligated. So is bit-by-bit really the way, or is that just a cop-out? What am I talking about if I keep Shabbos and look forward to covering my hair after marriage, but I also really love cheeseburgers? It’s total hypocrisy.
Please help me, because I want my life to be one of meaning, but I feel I have two selves, both being drawn to two different lives, and I love and am grateful for them both, and need to find a way that both can exist. Is it possible?
Confused and Inspired
Dear Confused and Inspired,
First of all, I proudly cover my hair AND love cheeseburgers, so there is no contradiction in that 😉 (Have you tried either of the new kosher burgers which are parve and made with the protein that makes meat bleed? They are both amazing substitutes for meat, for whenever you’re ready for that step.) Second of all, in terms of observance: “Slow and steady wins the race.” This is what my rabbis and teachers would say repeatedly back when I was in seminary. The story of the ba’al teshuva (or ger) who burned so brightly at the beginning that there was no fuel left for the long haul, is an age old tale.
When I was first becoming observant in my teens, I too thought, it had to be “all or nothing.” I had been inspired to begin my journey after years of searching for meaning in life and then meeting an Orthodox teacher at an after school Hebrew High I was attending. He showed me that the purpose I had been longing for could be found in my own backyard.
I spent my first Shabbos at his house spring of my junior year and then went to Israel that summer on a totally secular teen tour. Nonetheless, I became Shomer Shabbos while on the tour and planned to continue to observe Shabbos when I got home. On the first Shabbos after I got home, I lit candles, davened, and my mom made us a delicious Shabbos meal. I woke up Shabbos morning and davened again. (I had gotten my first Orthodox siddur that summer and didn’t really know what to say, so I was saying any of the recognizable prayers, including Mourner’s Kaddish, because, hey – it was a familiar tune from Hebrew school!). I was still on an Israel-high after lunch, when all of a sudden, I realized that a month later, for the High Holidays, I’d have to break yomtov to drive to shul with my family, and then several months after that, it would be my sister’s bat mitzvah, and I’d have to break Shabbos to drive to that.
In an instant, this Shabbos that had been all mine in Israel felt a million miles away. I decided that if I couldn’t have it all, I’d have none, because any reminder of it would be too painful and keeping somethings but not other things would be hypocritical. So, like any good Jersey girl, I hopped in the car and drove to the mall. I kissed Shabbos goodbye.
I spent the next several weeks like this, and then one Friday night, I was in a movie theater watching some dumb Frankenstein remake, feeling bored and annoyed with myself. I wondered, “Where am I?” My teacher who had sparked my initial interest had told us, “At every moment, you’re getting closer or further.” I realized I was moving further away and for what – to watch a stupid movie? It was then that I decided that while I might not be able to keep all of Shabbos every week, I would begin to keep some of it, so I could move closer.
I began keeping Shabbos by giving up the easiest things first, so it would be a Friday night, and I’d be watching TV and my mom would say to me, “Allison, do your homework!”
And I’d reply, “Mother? Homework? On the Lord’s day of rest?!”
And she’d respond, “But you’re watching TV.”
Then I’d explain, “Well, it’s too hard for me to give up TV for now, but I no longer do homework on Shabbos.”
Then, the next day, the whole family would be cleaning the house while I was on the phone with a friend. My mother would interrupt me, “Allison – grab the vacuum – you have to pitch in too.”
To which I’d respond, “Vacuum on the holy Sabbath, mother? How could I?”
And she’d respond, “But you’re talking on the phone.”
To which I’d reply, “Well, talking on the phone is too hard for me to stop at this point, but I no longer vacuum on Shabbos (or any other day!).”
This may sound silly, but it worked. Because I started with the easy stuff first, and as I got used to it, I moved onto the harder things next. Years later, I learned that my decision to grow in steps is based on a Torah idea from Pirkei Avos – mitzvah goreres mitzvah = “One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah.” If we can simply get ourselves started, just getting started small, will lead to more.
I tried this theory out on a woman who consulted me about becoming kosher. She felt like she wanted to and should, but she couldn’t imagine giving up shrimp.
“How do you feel about pork?” I asked.
“Eh,” she replied, “I’ve never been so into it.”
“Perfect!” I said, “So keep on enjoying your shrimp, but just give up the pork.”
A few months later, I spoke to her again and asked how the no pork eating was going. She told me “Great! And I gave up shrimp too because once I saw I could give up pork, I realized I could give up shrimp.”
So if I am claiming that slow steps (easiest ones first) is the way to growth, why isn’t it hypocrisy? Hypocrisy is when you move the goal posts. Hypocrisy is when you say “hair covering is important but kosher isn’t.” That’s not true. We are not told which mitzvos are more important. We are commanded to keep them all. But that is a tall order. So we start with what we can, we acknowledge that we are obligated in them all, and then we take our time to take them own, internalize them and make them last.
A couple more points. A rabbi named Rabbi Levy, who I studied with in Israel, once said that the evil inclination (yetzer hara), never wakes us up and tells us to rob a bank. Too drastic, too much. Instead, it slowly slips us away from where we want to be, and after many small, small steps, we wake up one day and realize how much we lost our way.
When it comes to growth, however, that same yetzer hara, convinces us that slow growth is meaningless. If we REALLY want to be religious, we will make BIG changes. But unfortunately, that doesn’t work. We burn out too fast. So we have to trick our yetzer hara and slowly move in the direction we want to go and after many, many, many small steps, one day we will wake up and see how far we’ve come.
Finally – don’t go it alone. It’s great that you found a shul that you like. Invest in finding friends and a rabbi or mentor you can trust. You will need support for when people give you a hard time. But hopefully, if you make smaller changes, the criticism will be less. And if you take the growth on at a healthy pace, you won’t lose yourself in the process and you will be living your best life. Mazel tov on your choice to return. By taking this first small step to come up with a better plan this time, you are well on your way!
Allison (aka Jew in the City)