“I just can’t understand it!’ my father said as he shook his handsome round face back and forth in bewilderment. He was in his mid 50′s and his luxurious full head of hair had been transformed from jet lack to distinguished salt and pepper. “We sent you to Temple Emanuel Hebrew school every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday for years. ” He pointed his finger in the air to punctuate, ‘and you grew up to become religious!’ Dad sneered and shook his head in incredulity. ‘We tried to raise you right. I just don’t understand how this happened,’ he muttered as if defeated.
Even though I was sitting on in the living room couch of the large comfortable suburban family home I grew up in, I suddenly felt like an alien. Milling about were a dozen or so curious relatives peering at me as if I had grown horns.
‘I like the Lubavitchers,’ one of my aunts chimed in to defend me; ‘they gave us Chanukah candles last year with chocolate coins. That was sweet of them.”
‘I never dreamed that you of all people would become religious. Are you really religious? Come on! I remember you in high school!’ my younger sister could hardly contain her laughter.
‘Well, I think it’s wonderful that she found something that is meaningful for her.’ She spoke as if I weren’t in the room but at least I thought this cousin understood, until she added,’ after all, she was so mixed up and unhappy before, at least now she will do something with her life. I’m glad she found something that’s good for her.”
It was true that I had misspent my early 20′s drifting and wandering in and out of universities without direction, but why did she have to show me pity as if I were a hopeless nebach? None of them understood me.
How could I describe my spiritual epiphany? Could they ever imagine how it felt to discover the joys of Yiddishkite? Would I ever be able to explain that even though I missed the long lazy days at the beach club, my faded jeans, dancing in night clubs, and eating moo goo gai pan, that none of it could hold a candle to what if feels like when my neshoma soars. Suddenly I felt as if I spoke a different language from my family, was living in a different dimension in time and space than them.
“Uh, um….you should see the Rebbe, I mean he’s amazing, a genius…and keeping Shabbos is not a burden at all, in fact it is so relaxing…and I don’t really mind living in a dorm with only girls and not dating right now…..,” my voice sounded as if it was coming from someone else and as I looked at their blank faces I realized they were listening politely, almost condescendingly, without the slightest comprehension of what I had experienced.
That moment I experienced another realization. At that instant I knew an invisible curtain had fallen between me and the rest of my family. It was not an iron curtain of oppression, but impenetrable nonetheless, a result of my choosing to live a life on a different spiritual plane. We didn’t share any common language that could bridge the gap between their modernity and my traditionalism, between their values which were the ones I was raised with, and my new found values, as timeless as they may be. For my family, Torah values were new, foreign, strange and represented an unattractive lifestyle.
Knowing I would have to embark on my new journey without my family was made less daunting by my obsession with running after kedusha. For almost three years I pursued my singular goal of shedding the old and taking on the new. No sacrifice was too great, the materialism of this world become subsumed by my focus on Torah and mitzvos. Throw away my pants? No problem! Give up eating in non-kosher restaurants or my parents’ house! Easy! No more dating, TV, movies, theatre, secular novels, magazines, rock and roll, and even cigarettes. All of it was left behind on the heap of my past personal secular history, shed like a caterpillar sheds its skin to become a butterfly