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…

Relationships

Today, I watched a great video by Chana Weisberg (of Chabad.org’s ‘The Jewish Woman’) about our relationship with G-d. She compared it to a human relationship, in which neglect is the most dangerous thing; the thing most likely to kill a relationship slowly. It’s the same with our spiritual relationships- we can’t let our love for G-d fade away; rather, we need to constantly work on our connection with Him, by observing His mitzvos, studying His word, and showing our love for him.

As I thought about this, my mind turned to my own relationship with G-d.

Lately, it’s been difficult. Davening has been good; studying has been difficult. But above all, I feel confused. I found myself saying ‘I can’t do this anymore’. Do what? I think I meant ‘carry on living this way’. A part of my brain had decided that leading a Torah observant life was too difficult. But relationships are difficult- and my soul knew that.

It’s a fact of life; relationships aren’t always smooth sailing.

If this applies to family relationships; friendships; and romantic endeavours, why shouldn’t it apply to the greatest relationship of all; that between G-d and one of His people? The relationship of Creator and Jew? It does apply- in spades. Faith is a funny thing. Sometimes I start to lose faith and the pressures of the outside world tempt me towards a different path. At the end of the day, I need to remember what’s fleeting and what’s not. My current surroundings will change, but G-d won’t.

When it comes to relationships, we can’t settle for second best. We need to keep striving; keep working; keep improving ourselves. And most importantly of all, we need to remember that no matter what, G-d loves us, and the relationship between G-d and Jew can never be truly severed.

The Gift of Life

One morning, I woke up and couldn’t breathe.

In the moments that followed I silently begged G-d to help me, to save me, to return to me the gift I had taken for granted. Those were the most heartfelt prayers I had ever uttered, and when finally I could smell and taste the air again, I cried out to G-d in thanks.

I will never forget this episode as long as I live.

The feeling of choking and spluttering and gasping for air, as my lungs terrifyingly closed up, was not one which will leave me in a hurry. When I began to breathe again, after what felt like hours of asphyxation, I felt sicker than I ever had done before in my life.

But I was alive.

As I recovered I said the morning prayers. Thanking G-d for my soul and body felt especially heartfelt after what had happened to me that morning, following a bout of sickness. I’ve not felt anything like it since, but it taught me a powerful- if terrifying- lesson.

Never take anything for granted.

The Jewish prayers are unique. Our tefillos are unlike those of any other faith. As a baal teshuvah- returnee to Judaism- I’ve been curious about many religions, and have read and explored their liturgies, hymns and prayer offerings. Within many of them, the central theme of thankfulness is present, but I’ve never seen it explored the way it is in Judaism.

In Judaism, thankfulness is before us every moment of our lives. We thank G-d when we wake up and go to sleep; before and after food; when we pray; when we wear new clothing, and even when we go to the bathroom. Life is one long expression of thanks to our Creator, through our words and through our deeds. This unique, constant thankfulness resonates with us all. When you’ve lost something or someone, you are engulfed with greif but aware of what you had. You realise, at last, how precious a gift G-d had given you.

But in Judaism, we don’t wait for loss to say thank you. We say it every day, for reasons not immediately obvious. Because often, these reasons are the most valid of all.

Teshuva

I thank G-d often for the fact that I became observant.

It’s not come without it’s trials. Expenses, new schedules, family feuds, and, yes, countless tears and moments of frustration. There have been days, particularly early on, when I considered giving it all up. When the difficulty of teshuva overwhelmed me and I wished I’d never begun. But the sadness always passed, as I encountered a new miracle and immersed myself again in the beauty of Yiddishkeit.

Sometimes, I still think- “Imagine if I’d never become frum”.

There are people who live their lives without¬†observance; who were taught the Torah in their mother’s womb, never to touch it again. That could’ve been me. But instead I was blessed. Blessed with the kind of wisdom which allows me to recognise¬†how little I know. Blessed with a beautiful and warm community. Blessed with the knowledge that the One Above is watching over me.

Thank you, G-d, for helping me to do teshuva.

My Exodus

A two day yontiff means a lot of things.

It means trips to shul- walks in the freezing cold, waiting to be embraced by the warmth of the synagogue, the holiness, the harmonies. It means meals. Endless meals, endless preparation, piles of dry, crisp matzah, mountains of green salad needing soaking, plates of coconut macaroons.

And it means a lot of time for thinking.

I think about what I’m going to write after the yontiff ends. I know I shouldn’t be thinking about that. Yet I can’t help but worrying; what if I run out of ideas? So I think, and plan, though I don’t write. But I nonetheless find the break much needed; rejuvenating, even. Have I turned into an old person? Unable to muster the energy to continue my daily activities? No. I just appreciate a holiday. I wince as I realise I don’t actually have energy anymore. I’m not old. Just wary and tired and busy.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t get a little bored on the yontiff. No shopping, no telephone calls, no messages. No signs of life. Shul deals with this. I immerse myself in prayers, in the company, in the latticework of the mechitza and the swirls of the Pesach tablecloth. A home from home.

Back home- or perhaps before shul- I sat on the white paisley duvet and tears sprang to my eyes and ran down my cheeks. I needed to be sick. I blinked away tears and sickness and frowned because I didn’t realise why I was crying. For once in my life I wasn’t sad. Not especially. I was, actually, ok.

I never thought I’d be ok.

Amidst the worries and heartbreak and sickness and sorrow, I’m ok.

Because of the yontiff? In spite of the yontiff? I don’t know. But this year, that was my own personal exodus. To sit there, with tears on my cheeks, and realise that despite it all, I was ok. I wanted to be ok, so I would be. And for some short time, I was. More things came after that. Loneliness and shock and despair. And I wasn’t ok. But I knew that if I worked on it, I could be ok. I could take control. I could make it better.

And that’s what I’m trying to do.