The Shabbes Table

Yesterday, I went to an exhibition which I had visited at exactly the same time last year. The exhibition included pairs of Shabbes candles, a realistic Shabbes table, and even a Sefer Torah. As I listened to the recorded brochos and touched the candlesticks, I remembered my thoughts as I had stood before this same table last year.

“I wish this were mine.”

As a Baalas Teshuva, the thought of celebrating Shabbes with my family was unthinkable. A kind of dream which I thought would never become a reality. I was moved almost to tears as I sat at that replica table last year- and remembering this yesterday almost knocked me over.

After a family reconciliation, my other relatives began- or continued- their own Jewish journeys, and Shabbes dinner became a central function of our lives. We laughed, cried, and told stories at the Shabbes table. Sometimes, it’s stressful: I can’t face hosting guests or mediating disputes, and I forget what a blessing the Shabbes table is. It’s not always perfect, but this week, as I light the candles, I’m going to try and remember to thank G-d for this beautiful gift He gave me.

A Time for Mourning

Yesterday was, in my eyes, the first time I properly observed Tisha b’Av. Between fasting, wearing white, and going to shul for both evening and morning services, I feel that I kept to the day’s laws and customs as well as I could, and, perhaps strangely, I felt proud of myself doing this. As a BT, it takes a lot to wake up at six AM for services and to observe a fast day which is relatively new to me, and not something I grew up with.

But when you look past the day’s practices, it’s what’s inside that matters the most. Abstaining from food and wearing white are mere reflections of what’s going on in our hearts, minds, and- above all- souls. And yesterday, for the first time, I felt a true, heart-rendering connection to the Temples that we lost.

My days are governed by to do lists and streams of thoughts and worries. Other than on shabbes, I write an article every day. I also set reminders to daven mincha and maariv, study Chitas, answer various messages, and deal with household chores. Tisha b’Av was absent of these things. I couldn’t study Torah, and I decided not to write or work. I cried, I said kinos, and I felt my heart ache.

I mourned the Temples and the baseless hatred which had destroyed them. And today, I stopped mourning. I entered back into everyday life. And above all, I resolved to change the world. To mend it. I wasn’t going to sit and mourn; there’s a time and a place for that, and yesterday was that time and place. Today, my role is to rebuild the temple, to counter the hatred, and to make sure that next Tisha b’Av is spent joyously and not in mourning.

May we merit to see the arrival of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Temple, speedily and in our days iyH.

Life

It’s easy to lose track of the important things in life.

Today, I worried about all the things I had to do. Articles to research and write, books to study, emails to answer. I worried about the cooking and the shopping and where I’d daven on Tisha b’Av. I thought about the texts to friends that had gone unanswered and the plans I needed to make. I realised that amidst all this, there was no way I could get away for a few hours to see my family. It was just too busy here.

And then I thought about the fragility of life. I thought about Miriam bas Shoshana, the girl I’d davened for who had sadly slipped away. I thought about how little I knew my own family and how hectic my life was. How every minute was governed by calendars and tick lists and work. And I put down the phone, got dressed, and went out.

I’m sitting in a little flat, trying to ignore the murmur of the television, something so foreign to me, listening as someone talks on the phone, writing this and forgetting all my other responsibilities. Forget work. Today I’m going to live my life.

What I Learned From An Old Siddur

I was once gifted a small siddur with a blue cover. It wasn’t the sort of siddur I was accustomed to using, and as I attempted to increase my observance, I began davening with a Chabad siddur, leaving the gifted prayer book behind, wondering if it had ever been ok to use it. It was from a different denomination, a different period in my life.

But I remembered how the words had spoken to my soul when I was drowning in my sorrows, and as I suffered from heartbreak I opened the book once more and read from it. What I read was poignant. Moving. It tugged at my heartstrings and made me feel like Someone was listening. I wasn’t alone. Hashem was guiding me from above, and, after all, if someone had written a prayer which spoke to me that way, surely they had felt what I was feeling?

The siddur sits on the table. I hope I never have to read that prayer again. But it taught me a lesson. That maybe these unique prayers make sense in a weird way. Maybe they mean something. Maybe, even if they can’t replace the traditional prayers, they can supplement them. And maybe Someone is listening and answering my cries.

Fitting In

Sometimes, I feel that I should write a book about shuls. Something eloquent with a hint of humour, paragraphs of lavish praise and sharp insight among photographs of glittering chandeliers and modest kiddush tables. Or maybe I should stick to Facebook reviews. I was never one for observational comments.

Either way, I am, for better or worse, acquainted with a large number of shuls.

Maybe it’s run of the mill for someone who is becoming frum, but I get the feeling that ten shuls in the space of less than two years is rather more than average. Some of these shuls have been liberal or reform, some modern orthodox, some chabad, some simply traditional. I’ve sat in more womens’ balconies than I care to remember and I could actually write a review of the different mechitzos I’ve stood behind.

I’m not sure if I’m fortunate or unfortunate to have floated between so many communities. Have I ever felt uncomfortable, alone? Without a doubt. Have I wondered if I’ll ever find the right shul for me? Many a time. But now, after much debating and struggling and pleading Hashem for guidance, I think I’ve found my home. Where else but Chabad?

And yet, the feeling of never fitting in has not left me. Only now, it manifests itself differently. If I’m not the one sitting alone, telling myself none of these people want to speak to me, then someone else is. There’s a theory in many games, including Bridge, that if within half an hour, you’ve not worked out who the terrible player is, it’s you.

The moral is: there’s always a terrible player.

And I remembered this theory as I thought about my experience with shuls. Replace the terrible player with the person who doesn’t feel they fit in. The black sheep. The lonely soul. Call them what you want, they’re the equivalent of the terrible bridge player in that there’s always one of them.

Feeling happy and at home in your shul? Great. But in my experience, it means someone else isn’t. I’d love to be proved wrong. I’d love for you to tell me that in your shul, everyone feels a happy sense of belonging. But I just don’t think it’s true. In my past, there’s always been one person who feels like a hopeless misfit. Usually me. And now that it’s not me, I know what my task is.

To find that other misfit and help her feel as at home as I do.

The Mitzvah Which Changed My Life

Earlier today, I was reading a fascinating article by Kylie Ora Lobell, named ‘Why I Pray Every Day’. I felt that I could relate to Kylie’s emotions on every level; although, unlike her, I am not a convert, I feel that, as a baalas teshuvah, I had encountered much of the same uncertainty and confusion. What’s more, her hurried days, beginning with oversleeping and ending with a feeling of stress and a glance at the to-do list sounded so much like my own that I could hardly believe it.

Lately, I’ve been waking up feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the day ahead, spending much of the day- like Kylie- trying to balance housework, writing and a number of other tasks, and going to bed late feeling both exhausted and stressed and yet as if I’ve accomplished nothing. There’s never a moment when I’m not thinking about what I need to do next, if I’ve done enough, if there’s something else to tick off.

Other than when I daven.

Yesterday, I was so busy that I almost forgot to daven. I ended up davening a ‘Belzer mincha’ at an extremely late hour. As I remarked on this, someone else told me that I wasn’t obligated to do such a thing. Very true. But, as a woman- in spite of, or perhaps because I’m not obligated- I derive a great sense of peace from prayer. Admist the hustle and bustle of the day, I take a few minutes away from the tasks and lists and stress and worry and simply talk to my Creator. Yes, I use a siddur, but as I say Tehillim and speak to G-d, my words are anything but rigid and structured.

It’s life changing.

Since I became observant, I took on many things, all of which have helped me in one way or another, if only through bringing me closer to G-d. Tznius, for example, something which was always at least slightly important to me, has given me a greater amount of self-esteem and confidence since I began observing it fully. Torah study, meanwhile, has expanded my knowledge and effected me intellectually as well as spiritually. But there’s nothing quite like davening. Nothing which has enriched every single day of my life in such a unique and special way.

Truly, prayer has changed my whole life.

Close to G-d

Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve dedicated a lot of thought to Jewish communities and the differences between Jewish communities. But it was only today that I asked myself what exactly I was looking for. What was this endless search for the perfect community about?

Almost straightaway I thought of the answer.

I was looking for a community where I felt close to G-d. It didn’t matter where it was or what affiliation it was. So long as it was a viable option, I’d consider it- but only if it kindled my love for G-d and the mitzvos and made me feel close to Him. Naturally, my soul cleaves to Him, but I don’t rely on that alone. When I pick friends, when I plan my week, even when I choose what books to read, I choose things which make me feel proud to be Jewish, and close to G-d.

It’s the same with communities.

The one which makes me want to do mitzvos is the right one for me. Please G-d, I will soon be granted the clarity to realise which one that is- for I’m sure I will have been there before…