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.

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.

The Dark Side of Social Media

There’s a definite downside to being good with social media. You get to see all the things you’re not supposed to see; the pictures of your friends having a laugh together, all those times they “forgot” to invite you, the beautiful women your ex “likes” photos of on Facebook, the women you compare yourself to on a daily basis without their- or his- knowledge, because you know what buttons to press, what keys to click, to trigger that magical formula and see the things you’re not supposed to see. Photos hidden from timelines. Photos someone liked in 2016. Photos from people who- with good reason- aren’t your friends.

Yes, I think it’s fair to say that social media is a little invasive.

Normally, when I conduct these sort of searches, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for invading someone else’s privacy- whether it’s that of an ex, a fake friend, a potential partner or some girl I’ve never even met. I sometimes think about the halachos of this sort of thing, and wonder if my social media searches are ‘kosher’, so to speak, or if I’m breaking laws about privacy and respect- things which are very important in halacha.

But today, I felt a different sort of guilty. I felt guilty for what I was doing to myself. I tell myself that I’d sooner know the truth about all those times my friends excluded me, saying I probably wouldn’t enjoy whatever they’d planned, and that there’s no harm in scrolling through the photos of other girls which he has liked on Facebook. It’s just some harmless fun, they’re none the wiser- who’s hurt by it? The answer is: I am. My hobby (or perhaps addiction) has become a way of hurting myself over and over again, presenting my consciousness with a series of images with no context, torturing myself with fictitious stories of how, why and when, and leaving me feeling emotionally battered and bruised, even more unpopular than I was before I started searching.

I’m not one of those people who thinks social media is totally evil. Actually, I quite like it, and before I learned how to unearth all those things I wasn’t supposed to see, I think it did good things for me. It’s a place for me to share articles, thoughts, divrei Torah, and photos. It’s a way to connect with old friends, meet new ones, and keep in touch with some of my favourite people on earth. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel thankful for the beautiful photos, inspiration and messages I receive from the select few who make the whole going online thing worthwhile.

But then I come back to the point I made earlier, about privacy and respect in Jewish tradition and law. One of the most famous Jewish prayers is called Ma Tovu, meaning “How good”. Many have the minhag to recite this prayer upon entering a Shul, and growing up, despite my lack of Jewish education, I remember learning how to sing the prayer in the tradition of many Liberal and Reform shuls. The text of Ma Tovu begins with a line from Parshas Balak, which reads “How good are your tents, oh Yaakov, your dwelling places, oh Israel!”, before continuing with quotations from Tehillim.

Quite often, this raises a question: what was so good about the tents and dwelling places of the Israelites?

The answer is pretty simple. The tents were positioned as to give their occupants privacy, carefully aligning the openings so that inquisitive neighbours- the Israelite equivalent, perhaps, of me sitting in front of the computer, conducting Facebook searches on people who’d really rather be left alone- couldn’t see in. This was admirable, as it gave a sense of privacy and dignity to the Chosen People, which is why we laud their tents with lavish praise.

But today, I started thinking about the flip side of this issue. I think curiosity is a part of the human nature; we all have that underlying desire to know what’s going on in other’s lives, starting with reading our sibling’s diaries, and gradually progressing to stalking our exes on Facebook and Instagram (unless that’s just me). And consequently, I think that the set-up of the Israelite tents, so that prying eyes were physically unable to see in, was really rather clever. It didn’t just protect those who were inside- it protected the outsiders, too, from seeing things they weren’t supposed to see.

In many ways, social media is the opposite. What seemed like a blessing- my ability to find anyone and anything on Facebook- actually turned out to be a curse, as there was very little in place to protect myself- let alone the other person- from what I was doing. I think that in the back of my mind, I’ve known this for a long time, but it only came to the forefront of my consciousness today, when I saw a post from a Rabbi I follow (I may or may not be adding this in to prove that I use social media for “good” things, too), entitled “The Grass is Greener & Social Media”. He spoke about how his neighbour’s grass seems much greener than his, and it stays that way all year round, for the simple reason that it’s artificial. It’s the shrubbery equivalent of the Instagram filters and Snapchat stickers we use to mask our realities- the filters which I can spot from a mile away and yet which still fool me.

A few moments before I read his article, I’d been conducting those addictive Facebook searches, only to find a picture which upset me deeply, showing several of my friends at an event I hadn’t been invited to. And I commented on the rabbi’s insightful, thoughtful piece that I’d just been thinking about exactly the same topic, not realising that mere hours later I’d be revealing my social media habits to the whole wide world. Simply put, I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe in hashgocho protis- Divine providence. I think that these events collided for a very good reason, sending me a signal too strong to ignore. Maybe I’ve seen enough. Maybe it’s time to stop. Maybe I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need to chase after things which will never be mine, because I’m only making myself sadder and lonelier, and tearing myself away from those who truly care.

If all those years of saying “Mah Tovu ohelacha Yaakov, mishkenosecha Yisroel,” taught me anything, it’s that sometimes, privacy can be a good thing. Not just for those who are shielded by it, but for those who go searching. Those who, like me, will inevitably see things that make them wish they hadn’t started looking in the first place.

Unity

I rarely post about Chabad on this blog. Over time, I seem to be writing about Chabad and Halachically less and less and focusing more on my own thoughts and experiences. But mostly, I write about what inspires me- and this inspired me.

In the face of division – and when I use that word I include both the Reform rabbis bashing Orthodoxy, and the Frum rabbis throwing people out of communities- gatherings such as this one are a truly beautiful response.

http://www.chabad.org/news/article_cdo/aid/3933011/jewish/3000-Women-to-Honor-30th-Anniversary-of-Rebbetzins-Passing.htm#utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fb_news

I don’t think that the Rebbetzin OBM would be particularly pleased by many of the things seen in frum communities today. But I think that she is looking upon these amazing women from shamayim with the utmost pride.

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.

Parshas Vayishloch: The Woman Who Had No Voice

Every year, when I read Parsha Vayishloch, I am left at a loss for words. I’m not referring to the reconciliation between Yaakov and Esov, nor am I talking about Rochel’s death. I’m talking about Dinah. Dinah, who was raped, and ultimately failed- not by her brothers who slaughtered an entire village for her, but by the rabbonim who spent the centuries which followed blaming Dinah for what happened.

It starts with Rashi. Rashi, the trustworthy, respected rabbi, and writer of perhaps the most widely used Torah commentary, who casually drops the following statement; “[Dinah was known as the daughter of Leah, and not the daughter of Yaakov], because of her going out… since she (Leah) too was in the habit of going out, as it is said: ‘and Leah came forth toward him'”. We learn from this, apparently, that Leah’s habit of going out was “immodest” and unbecoming for a Jewish woman. She should have stayed in the tent, like Sarah Imeinu, and it’s heavily implied that had Dinah not gone out so often- and, indeed, had Leah not set this immodest example- she wouldn’t have been raped.

The blame falls on Dinah, and on her mother. Shechem, her rapist, gets his just desserts, when he and his village are killed by Dinah’s brothers, but they defend their decision by saying, “We could not let our sister be like a harlot”, a comparison which to me, in the 21st century, seems completely repulsive. The dismissal of rape victims as promiscuous women is a troubling trend which continues to this very day, and no matter what excuses I hear about it being the attitude of the time, it nonetheless leaves me speechless. The Torah is eternal. It is supposed to be unchangeable. So how can we excuse these statements by simply saying “that’s how things were at the time”?

And then, looking at modern articles and chiddushim on Parshas Vayishloch, the horrifying attitude towards Dinah’s rape continues. One Facebook page dedicated to modesty declares sincerely that Dinah’s rape was due to the fact that she showed her forearm, sending the message that it was her fault for tempting Shechem. If this is the message being sent to our young women, how can we expect them to feel at home in Orhodox Judaism? How can we expect them to feel empowered by their religion and ancestry when messages such as these are commonplace?

And so, after years of being at a loss for words, I’m speaking out.

I can’t change the Torah. None of us can. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that the Torah is emes. It is the truth, and, for better or worse, we humans can’t take parts out, or add things in, or whitewash over the bits which trouble us. What we can do, however, is tackle these things head on; examine them in great detail, from every angle, until we understand them. Additionally, we need to take a look at the messages being sent out by contemporary rabbonim. Quite often, these messages are far from the truth. The “chiddush” about Dinah being raped because she wore short sleeves finds its basis in the words of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, the first to suggest it, but could- and should- have been dismissed long since then. Instead, we find it used as an example of why tznius is important.

I am a huge advocate for tznius, but not in the context of preventing rape. This year, when we read Parshas Vayishloch, we need to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, unaffected by the centuries of misogynistic victim-blaming which surrounds it. We need to put aside what Dinah wore, and how often she went out, and look at what we can do for the millions of Dinahs- rape victims- who have found themselves blamed and criminalised for what happened to them. The women without voices. The women who read these things in Jewish schools or on social media and blame themselves for what happens to them. The women who we, as a community, have failed.

Not Good Enough?

I’ve spent a lot of this week thinking about the issue of “who is a good Jew”, the subject of the article I wrote on Monday. Having read about the tale of the Kotzker Rebbe, who told his student that everyone is a good Jew, except he who already thinks he is one, I started wondering whether I fell into that category, and whether or not the messages sent by this statement were positive, or harmful. My thoughts went beyond “who is a good Jew”, to “who is a good person”, and I started wondering whether or not

As usual, my questions were answered by a woman named Chana Weisberg- a writer, editor, and star of numerous inspirational videos. Her latest video, titled “Enough of this Not-Enoughness”, tackled the issue of messages to better oneself. She spoke of how being told that one isn’t good enough is inherently harmful, when it comes with the added baggage of comparison. Comparing yourself to others, she tells us, is a surefire way to make “not enough” messages seem paralysing. But when you turn it around and compare your current situation to your potential, as opposed to someone else’s, you find yourself empowered and able to perform better.

The more I thought about Chana’s words, the more sense they made to me. In the past, I had always told myself, “That’s not good enough- your friend could do better“; I measured my own success by comparing it to other people’s, and was left feeling totally inadequate as a result. I hated myself for not meeting my own expectations, nor the perceived expectations of others who I compared myself to. But maybe, I realised, I should leave other people out of this.

Once I take my friend or rival out of the equation, all that’s left is my own potential. I can no longer tell myself that I’m a terrible person, because I’m comparing my actions against what I could be achieving, not what someone else could be achieving. I move the focus onto how I can do better, as opposed to wallowing in feelings of inadequacy, and constantly envying those around me- although I know, deep down, that they, too, have their own problems and likely do the same.

Do I still sometimes feel like I’m not good enough? Without a doubt. A lifetime of feeling insignificant and unable to succeed cannot be undone in a few days. But this week, I’ve caught myself thinking comparatively in terms of not being good enough, and adjusted my thought process accordingly. And, surprisingly, it seems to be working. I no longer judge myself for not being as “brilliant” as the women I was jealous of, and instead my thinking revolves around my own potential. Thanks to the Kotzker Rebbe and Chana Weisberg, I have finally found myself feeling slightly less inadequate- perhaps even confident…

Parshas Vayeitzei: Learning From Leah

This week’s Sedra tells the story of two sisters. It’s an oft-repeated tale; one of the sisters is younger, more beautiful, and loved by everyone, while the older daughter is less attractive and less popular, a fact which contributes to the turbulence of their relationship, which is marked by rivalry and jealousy. Needless to say, it’s the younger sister- Rochel, in this case- who attracts male admiration, and ends up with a marriage proposal from none other than Yaakov Avinu, who works for their father for seven years so that he can marry her. But then something happens, and when Yaakov wakes up the morning after the wedding, he realises that he is married to Leah, the younger sister, and that their father- the deceitful Laban- has tricked him.

Needless to say, Yaakov is not especially pleased by his discovery, and confronts Laban. But in the end, he promises to work for another seven years to marry the younger sister- so great is his love for the beautiful Rochel. Of course, it’s touching to hear of his dedication to her, but one is left feeling rather sorry for Leah. One can imagine just how hard it is to be the older, less attractive sister, who can only get married by accident, and then finds herself “hated” as a result.

I think that all of us have been Leah at one time or another. Growing up, the story of sibling rivalry certainly spoke to me, as I found myself feeling insignificant in comparison to my brother, who was better looking, more intelligent, and- I felt- better liked. As I grew older, I began to realise that he had his own problems, and his life wasn’t nearly as perfect as I had imagined. Once I realised this, our relationship improved and we became inseparable, but I still connect deeply with Leah on a personal level, as I struggle with feeling like the least attractive, least intelligent, and- above all- least interesting friend in my peer group.

But despite her unfortunate predicament, Leah’s story is one of brilliance. It takes time, but Leah has seven children- six sons, and a daughter- and we learn that her sons’ names allude to the fact that she was also a prophetess, as she predicted their futures. As if this wasn’t enough, we learn that Yaakov eventually admits that Leah is his “chief” wife, and the mother of the majority of his children. There’s also something unique about Leah: she is the first person to praise Hashem. After the birth of her children, she turns to Him and thanks Him for all he has given her, perhaps thinking of her transformation from the unloved woman who was sneered at to the mother of multitudes.

We can’t deny that Leah had a difficult life. But we learn from her that perhaps, it’s not being young, popular and attractive which matters the most in life. Although she encountered difficulties and opposition, and felt inferior to her younger sister, Hashem answered her prayers and gave her the children she so desperately longed for. What Leah lacked in popularity, she made up for in faith; her tears ascended to heaven and her prayers reached Hashem’s ears, and she made sure to set a precedent of thankfulness. It turns out that these things were more important after all; so if, like Leah, you’re feeling insignificant, remember the story of her life, and how Hashem blessed her.

Twenty

Today I turned twenty.

Lots of people will be surprised to hear this. I quite often receive messages from readers who presume I’m in my fifties or sixties- not exactly flattering, but it makes a nice change from feeling held back by my age in a world where people won’t take young women seriously, at least not when they’re talking about the Torah. But I digress. Every birthday, somebody- usually a relative- asks me, “How does it feel being a year older?”. In the past, my response has always been “I feel the same”. It’s true. What difference does a day make?

But over the past year, I feel that I’ve grown in leaps and bounds. I look back on who I was this time last year- and for the first time in my life, I’m proud.

Pride doesn’t come easily to me. It’s easy to say that that’s a good thing- and to an extent, it is. But not when you go through life feeling like a total failure because you simply can’t be proud of yourself. Until recently, I always used to laugh at the fact that people came to me for advice- whether it was through my website or study group, or friends messaging me looking for my take on an issue. My own life is a shambles, I would say. What on earth makes them think I’m qualified to help them with theirs?

Then today, as I thought about where I was on my 19th birthday last year, and what I’ve been through over the twelve months which followed, I realised that perhaps I am a somebody after all. Perhaps, I tentatively suggested to myself, I am a success. There’s no one size fits all definition for successful, but I think that being happy with where you are is a good place to start. Am I happy with my life right now? Not entirely. I, like everyone else, have problems, and doubts. I have nights where I dread the next day, and days when I don’t think I can face the world. But somehow, I always manage; and that is my personal success.

I’ve learned a lot over this past year. Way too much to put into one short post. I’ve learned about true friends, and fake ones. I’ve learned about love, and I’ve learned about heartbreak. I’ve learned who the people around me really are, and I’ve learned about the power of a few kind words, or a thoughtful message on a gloomy day. I’ve learned- albeit over the space of a whole year- that perhaps I’m not one of the beautiful young women on Facebook with perfect families and healthy diets and tight dresses and faces so beautiful they don’t even need Instagram filters (honestly, can you imagine that?)- and that’s ok. Above all, I’ve learned who I really am. And as I think about all I’ve been through, I realise that, at long last, I’m proud of myself. Not many people could have been through what I have, and come out smiling- or at least trying to smile, because who says life is always perfect?

If you’re, like I was, a young person doubting your place in this world, and perhaps even doubting your self worth, I have some advice for you. I was going to interject Golda Meir’s famous quote here- “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great”- but thankfully I realised that maybe it’s a touch insensitive. Instead, I’m going to tell you to look at where you were a year ago, and realise how much you’ve grown. Look at the bad things that happened, and realised you survived them all. Look at where you are today, and realise that, if, despite all the hard times and insecurities and tragedies, you’re still here, in one piece, reading this, then you’re doing amazingly.

I’m probably going to finish writing this article, all about growth and thankfulness and all those other things which make you roll your eyes, shut my laptop, and start complaining about the weather, or something which happened on my birthday. And that’s okay. We can’t be perfect and thankful all the time, but we can stop and realise how blessed and amazing we are; as I just did, and as I hope you will, too.

Frumkeit and Femininity: My Interview with Franciska

Franciska is a successful singer. Through beautiful melodies, inspiring videos, and profound lyrics, her words touch and inspire listeners around the world. She is also a Torah-observant Jew, who combines her love for music with a love for tradition: no easy feat in the fast paced modern world. She tells us, “I was born in the States but grew up in Moscow in a Rabbi’s home. I moved to the States after studying at the Michalala seminar, and I graduated from Touro College in NY. I lived in Atlanta, Baltimore and now in Bala Cynwyd, or Lower Merion, near Philadelphia”. When asked about her musical background, she replies, “I started writing music when I was quite young, so my first album (which was released in 2012) was full of songs that I had composed as a child. To date, I have released 5 albums professionally and I’m already working on album 6. Additionally, I have 11 music videos and there are more coming out”.

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Frum Jews follow the laws of “kol isha”, which restricts men from listening to women singing, and, as such, means that observant singers such as Franciska can only perform in front of women. I asked her if this presented a huge challenge, and she told me, “Since the market isn’t that huge, I guess making it big isn’t the most unrealistic dream….however the ‘big’…isn’t actually that big, if you know what I mean”. On the other hand, she reflected that being a frum, female singer, was also inspiring, saying “The camaraderie between my so called competition is amazing. we are all in the ‘kol isha’ space together and we’re helping each other out. I love that I can sing about such spiritual and beautiful things; my music is my form of avodas Hashem and that’s one of the strongest parts of my Yiddishkeit”.

Franciska admits that her faith can, sometimes, prevent a challenge.”I try to get as much exposure I can, but at the same time I can’t perform at most events or venues. Even female catered events have male guests and the platform for me to perform live is very limited. Maybe others have different experiences, but this is hard for me”. She decides not to let her dedication to Halacha hold her back, though, stating that “My faith compliments everything I can do and my passion is bringing new music to ancient texts…. so without my faith and the inspiration I get from it, my music wouldn’t be the same”.

When I asked Franciska if she had any dreams, she told me that she longs to inspire and help other talented women. “I would really like to start a label and offer the environment and resources for all the talented women out there. Of course, this is a dream right now, because the amount of money needed for this is enormous and the market is not big enough to sustain such investment”. But Franciska’s dedication and willingness to work hard shines through, and leaves me wondering for how long her dream will remain just a dream. Her ability to inspire and influence seemingly knows no bounds, and she loves helping and encouraging others, telling me that when things are difficult, “A fan who reaches out randomly to tell me how I enhanced her prayer or her Jewish Holiday keeps me going. That’s all I need”.

When working in an area as volatile and fast-paced as the Jewish music business, perseverance and enthusiasm are both very important, as Franciska demonstrates when telling me about her plans for the rest of the year. “I’ll be creating music videos, and a new album! I’m going to keep going and I have a new show- in fact, I am booking up my tour dates!”. I walk away feeling inspired and amazed by what I’ve heard. In all my experience with the music world, I seldom find someone as unique and genuine as Franciska, and I genuinely believe that she is going to be the next big thing; one of the strong, inspirational Jewish women who are celebrated in her latest video:

Franciska can be contacted using the information below:
franciskakay@gmail.com
http://www.franciskamusic.com
1(845)-642-7636
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