Goodbye

I’ll be honest. I had no idea how to start this post.

How do you say goodbye to something that has been a huge part of your life for the past year and a half?

How do you explain to hundreds of followers that for your own sake, you’re taking a break which you wish you didn’t have to take?

How do you tell the world in general that you’re not giving up on your dreams, but you just need to put this particular one on hold?

There’s no easy way. Jewish Thoughts has been a massive part of my identity since I started blogging in summer 2016. As I’ve explored my faith, this blog has been by my side constantly, and I feel that it has grown with me, becoming home to my eclectic and often imperfect thoughts and feelings. This website and its followers have been with me as I’ve experienced highs, lows, and somewhere in-betweens, navigating the loss, heartbreak, opportunities and blessings of my life.

I am a writer and always will be. I am in no way stopping writing- I might as well stop breathing. But in the meantime, I am taking a break from Jewish Thoughts. As many of my friends probably know, the past six months or so have been especially trying for me, and there have been many times when I’ve felt unable to carry on. I feel that I’ve been lacking in motivation and that the quality of my posts has decreased lately. Not only is this a writer’s worst nightmare, but I am dealing with a number of issues right now which require my full attention and for this reason I made the difficult decision to leave this website.

There’s a part of me which can’t quite believe I’m stepping away from this website. In many ways, it feels like a failure, but I want to reiterate that I’m not giving up and never will. In the meantime, I still intend to submit occasional articles to magazines and websites, because my writing genuinely is everything for me and I hope to eventually make a career out of it. I may also post periodically, or return to regular posts when I feel ready to do so, and I sincerely hope that this break will be an exceedingly short one.

I’m eternally thankful to the person who inspired me to begin blogging, and to the one who encouraged me to keep writing when I needed that support the most. I’m also grateful for all the amazing people I have met through this website and am convinced that I have the nicest, kindest followers in the world, who made blogging such a joy for me. Additionally, I would like to thank the fascinating and inspiring people I have interviewed for this website over the years. Finally, I want to say thank you to my friends who have kept up with this blog via email and Facebook. There are way too many of you to name individually, but you made it all worthwhile.

While I take some time away from the world of blogging in order to put my life back together, please do reach out if you wish to keep in touch. It’s truly been an amazing journey.

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When I Pray

I go to shul twice a week,
And sit in wooden pews,
Clutching a book,
And laughing at the irony of it all.
Why is it, I ask myself,
That I come here to pray,
And yet end up talking instead.
Why is it, I wonder,
That my greatest prayers,
My most heartfelt pleas,
Were not said in shuls-
Not even on Yom Kippur-
But on antiseptic blue chairs,
By hospital bedsides,
Or as I sat on soft carpet,
Weeping at the unfairness of life.
Why is it,
That standing in G-d’s dwelling place,
I only say the words in the book,
And not those in my heart?
Is it fear?
Fear of crying, fear of ruining my mascara,
Fear of Looking Silly?
Is it exhaustion?
At the end of a long week,
Too tired to plumb the depths of my heart?
Is it something else?
Something I can’t name-
Something about being surrounded by people.
Back home,
I clutch the blue Siddur,
With tattered pages,
Smudges,
Remnants of tears,
The evidence of a hundred heartbreaks.
And I resolve,
From now on, when I pray,
I will be this honest always.

I am a Shlucha

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When I was younger
I wanted to be-
Needed to be-
One of the women in this picture.
A fighter,
A shining star,
A blessing,
A shlucha.
I was going to be a woman who helped others,
A woman who changed the world,
One Shabbes meal at a time.
I was going to bring peace by lighting candles,
And battle the darkness which befell us.
I was going to be a shlucha.
Now I’m twenty,
Unmarried,
No children,
No chabad house to my name.
I’ve never handed out candles,
On a busy London street,
And I rely on others,
When I should be hosting them.
And yet I am a shlucha.
I am a fighter.
A warrior.
Here against all odds,
Jewish despite the obstacles,
And I have faith at times when I can’t work out why.
Each night,
When I open my siddur and thank G-d,
For the gift of another day,
I know I have helped others.
I’ve forgiven when I want to hold a grudge,
Loved when I wanted to hate,
Given when I wanted to take.
I am like the women in this picture.
I always was,
I always will be,
And you are too,
For each kind act you do.

Parshas Mishpotim: Strangers and Enemies

Think back to the last time you felt out of place. Maybe it was your first day at a new job, or in a new shul. Perhaps it was when you went on holiday and realised your mastery of the native language wasn’t quite what you thought it was. Or possibly, it was somewhere where you shouldn’t have felt like a stranger at all- maybe you were among friends or family who are supposed to include you, and yet you still felt like the odd one out.

For me, I don’t need to go too far back to remember the last time I felt like a stranger. To tell the truth, I have spent my whole life battling with feeling like a black sheep, something which I have written about extensively in my articles about feeling unwanted. In many ways, being- or feeling like you are- unwanted and unloved is quite similar to being a stranger, and so this week’s Parsha, Mishpotim, speaks to me in a truly unique way.

In the past, I have been privileged to write and teach about Parshas Mishpotim, and each and every time I am equally taken aback by the verse, “You shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the feelings of a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim”. I don’t quite have the words to describe how much this means to me. The imperative to remember the slavery in Mitzrayim doesn’t just apply to the generation who were enslaved there: it applies to each and every one of us, for as we remember in the seder each year, it was not just our ancestors who were freed from slavery, but us ourselves and all the generations to follow. And in the context of this week’s Parsha, I truly believe that the reminder of slavery and the exodus is meant to teach us empathy. It’s one thing to tell a people not to oppress strangers, but it’s another to remind them that they, too, were strangers not so long ago, and have no right to treat anyone as if they’re inferior simply because they’re new or different.

If you’re having trouble envisaging slavery in Mitzrayim, just return to the example which sprung to mind in the first paragraph of this article. Remember that time you felt lost. Alone. Out of place. You, too, were a stranger, and you likely felt an uncertainty and pain, longing for someone to alleviate your suffering by extending the hand of friendship. And that’s exactly what the Torah is telling us to do, rather than allowing prejudice or self preservation to cloud our moral judgement and allow us to mistreat somebody simply because we can.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about inclusion and welcoming strangers. Evidently, this topic hits close to home for me: but this time, I’d like to incorporate the teachings from the previous verses in Parshas Mishpotim. We are taught, “If you see the donkey of your enemy collapsing under its burden, and are inclined to desist from helping him, you shall surely help along with him”. For many of us today, this doesn’t immediately seem relevant, as we tend to live in big cities and are unlikely to encounter donkeys, but in fact it ties in closely with the teaching about the stranger.

Too many times, strangers are shunned due to fear and ignorance. We, as humans, naturally fear the unknown- that’s why so many are scared of the dark- but with this comes a common prejudice against people who are unlike us. We feel inclined to shut them out and make an enemy of them, and just like the man refusing to help his enemy’s donkey, we justify our refusal to help the stranger with our vilification of him. Too quickly, the stranger becomes the enemy and we have an excuse not to help him.

The Torah warns us that no matter our own personal fears and feelings, we are obliged to help another in need. After all, we have all been strangers at one time or another, and we owe it to those who helped us- and G-d Himself- to reach out to strangers and make friends, not enemies.

The Rebbetzen

Today is the Yahrzeis of the Lubavitcher Rebbetzin.

When I first came to Judaism, and began exploring the texts and traditions which I would later immerse myself in, I was isolated from the Jewish community. I had no connections to the people and places which I would later stumble across on my journey; all I had was books and the Internet and a desire to learn. What I was really lacking was a Jewish role model- and then I came across the Rebbetzen.

Of course, I never got to meet this amazing, strong, inspirational woman, who died years before I was born. But as I discovered more and more about her, the more fascinated I became. I remember a story about how she saved a man’s life, by pushing him out of the way of an explosion, and when lauded for this act, she simply responded, “True, but I pushed another Jew, and for that, one must do teshuva”. Her selflessness shone through her words and deeds, and I found myself longing to be like her.

The Rebbetzen changed the world through kindness. She quietly touched hearts and minds by making everyone feel like a close, personal friend of hers; no matter who they were or what they believed in. And later, while many of my peers began to carry pictures of the Rebbe, I secretly wanted a picture of the Rebbetzen- something I never found, perhaps because of her distaste for the limelight.

Since then, I have been zoche to meet and be influenced by a number of amazing Rebbetzens. But on Rebbetzen Chaya Mushka’s yahrzeis today, a part of me still wishes I could have met her.

On Treating Others Kindly

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On days like today, this quote comes as a timely reminder.

It’s not always easy to treat others as we want to be treated. On the contrary, I think that human nature quite regularly leaves us feeling vengeful and angry. We retaliate against those who have hurt us, continuing a cycle of hurt, with each person feeling like the injured party, and the cycle doesn’t stop until one person has the insight to see what is happening and pull away.

When I was being hurt or mistreated, I used to find myself reacting in one of two ways. I usually either retaliated, and tried to get revenge on the person who hurt me- leaving myself feeling angry and upset, and perhaps liable to do something I’d later regret- or else I’d sit there silently and take it, allowing people to walk all over me, without acknowledging their abuse or asking them to mend my ways.

After I started working on this mitzvah, I found that it was harder than I thought to treat others the way I wanted to be treated. I didn’t want people to allow me to hurt them, and nor did I want to be hurt, but finding a way to react to conflict which didn’t endorse either response was difficult.

Nowadays, when I am hurting, I evaluate my relationship with someone. I ask myself if they are a part of my life; if they make me feel good; if I truly like them; and if they elevate me spiritually. If they do, I try to use dialogue to work through these issues. I explain that I’m hurt, rather than seething silently, and if necessary, I ask for someone else’s advice. If they don’t do any of those things, though, and they simply make me feel nervous or unhappy, I try to disengage.

Pulling away from a negative influence is terribly difficult. They might be a relative, or someone I love despite their bad behaviour; or maybe I’m just used to associating with them. But I try to remember this quote and I know that as long as I let myself be drained and hurt by bad people, I won’t be able to be “good in the eyes of my fellow man”.

The journey to contentment is a long one, and I’m by no means there yet. But whenever I visualise this quote, and act on it, I find myself a step closer to my goal.

My Journey Home

When I was a young child, I realised that my family didn’t want me. They didn’t make a secret of the fact, but unfortunately, social services didn’t want me either – or so they said. And so, aged about six, my journey began, searching high and low for something – anything – which would make me feel wanted. Some girls wanted to be top of their class, and others wanted to be beauty queens, but I just wanted to fit in somewhere. Unfortunately for me, my ambition proved harder than I could have imagined, and when I grew older, I bounced between men, communities and so-called friends, trying to find someone who cared whether I lived or died.

And then I started on a path which eventually led me home.

My journey towards Judaism didn’t begin intellectually. As much as I loved the leather bound books, the books which brought a whole new meaning to the world of reading, and the swirling, calligraphic letters, it was a raw emotional need which drew me towards the tribe. Maybe it was those words themselves which did it. The thought of a protective, loving tribe of like minded people who viewed my heritage as a membership card was too much to resist, and so I joined a nearby shul hoping that for the first time in my life, I would feel wanted.

The love story was short lived and in no time at all I went back to feeling lonelier than ever. Here I was, surrounded by people, and not one of them seemed to care about me. I made enemies rather than friends, and ultimately left. I kept nothing- none of the mitzvos spoke to me anymore, but in the months that followed I tried again and again to find somewhere where I might fit in.

And as I continued my search, my love for Judaism grew. After months, and eventually years, of searching for the right physical place for me, I found an emotional place where I felt that I could search, and question, and seek, and yet I was still wanted. I finally realised, aged twenty, that maybe despite all the people telling me that I was the wrong kind of Jew, I had a right to be my kind of Jew, and those who truly loved me would want me anyway.

It was then that I truly began to feel wanted. It was then that I could walk into shul and sit down and feel like I was at home, and happy, and not some sort of perpetually alone outsider, destined to sit on the sidelines. I felt that I could be who I wanted to be and I was still considered a Jew, someone who mattered, someone special even.

There are still days when I feel like that young child who has just realised that her family don’t want her, when the whole world seems like a cold, hard place and I wonder if I can carry on. But as time goes by I begin to realise that Judaism has given me the power to be myself, and to know that G-d, and my true friends, love and treasure me, no matter what.

At last, I have found my home.