Wednesday, April 13, 2005


At so many Shabbat tables that I visit it happens…They ask me, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, to tell my story. They want to hear about how I felt G-d’s presence at the Kotel and immediately ran off to some learning program in Jerusalem where I found “The Truth”, leaving behind my completely secular life of fast cars, men and conspicuous consumption, They want to hear about how I went to some seminar in college which proved to me that G-d exists, Jews are chosen, and Orthodoxy is the way to go, after which I dropped membership to my Buddhist temple, my career as a Broadway actress, and my non-Jewish fiancĂ©. That is not my story. Hey I’m not denying that it works that way sometimes, the sudden epiphany effect I call it. That’s what happened to Tiffany, I mean Leah Malka, as she likes to be called now, her nom-de-frum, I always slip. She did the rapid jump into religiosity. Quite honestly it scared me silly. Here was best friend, college roomie, the one who I had literally dragged to the High Holiday services on campus, the agnostic who loudly opposed organized religion, and suddenly she was calling me from her Birthright trip which she had only gone on because it was free and I, as Hillel Vice President, begged her into to fill our body count quota. She says that she has decided to take off the next semester to explore Judaism. “Awesome! What are you planning to do over there, Kibbutz? I heard about some great classes at the Conservative Yeshiva, its right on King George Street, so convenient.” (Leah Malka speaks) ”Actually,” her voice crackled a couple of thousand miles away, “I got an offer to learn in this Orthodox school.”
“Oh.” Was all I could say. I tried not to sound overly negative, or let her know that my stomach had started to tighten at the thought. It was as if she had just told me that she had accepted a scholarship from the Reverend Sun Yung Moon to learn under his tutelage. It may sound like a gross overreaction to the circumstances, but you see, my previous experiences with Orthodox people had not been very good. In fact they had been down right nasty. I grew up traditional-conservative. You know, the type who walk to shul on Shabbat whenever possible, is super involved in USY, keeps kosher in the home, and is very proud her heritage. Yet, the Orthodox people that I met seemed to regard me as not good enough, not fully Kosher. When I attended those kiruv youth groups or on the occasion that I spent Shabbat at some outreach Rabbi’s home I would always come away feeling righteous in my rejection of Orthodoxy. That life seemed to me like a little absolutist, black and white box. Someone would inevitably denigrate feminist women, labeling them as angry, anti-family, misguided sad creatures, especially any female who had the audacity to want to devote her life to communal service and call herself Rabbi. Kids would stare cross-eyed at my Kippa. Practicioners of other sects of Judaism would be dismissed as uneducated lost sheep, or uncaring secularists who were said to think of the Ten Commandments as the Ten suggestions. Oh yah, someone would have to make fun of our fellow Tzelemeh Elokim, by telling a racist “shvartze” joke. It would all end with some well meaning soul assuring me that the “outside world” is immoral and that everyone is happier once they accept Hashem into their lives. In the end I would be in a snit and decide never to have anything to do with this dogmatic, sexist, racist, isolationist, elitist, cult again. You can imagine that the thought of Tiffany rushing headlong into Jerusalem syndrome made me a bit nervous. But I figured that she had every right to go soul searching. I told myself that she as a logical, thinking person would soon see the flaws in that world.
As I mentioned earlier, she now goes by Leah Malka, so you can guess where this story is headed. Two months into her program she proudly informed me that she had burned all of her jeans and Glamour magazines at a communal bonfire where students spontaneously decided to rid themselves of secular pollutants. She told me that she didn’t want society dictating how she perceives her body, that the laws of modesty protect against objectification and devaluation of the body as a holy vessel.
(Yell) “You are part of a crazy cult, who objectifies women to the point that people judge and throw stones based on what they are wearing! As your best friend, who loves you dearly I am telling you right now to get out of that brainwashed school!”

(Leah Malka steps forward facing her friend)
I wonder how it is that you do not see the beauty that I see. Why you scream out against this richness, it is so right, so true. I know what it must look like standing from a distance, but it is not what you think. Why are my choices dismissed to the realm of brainwashing. I am not joining a repressed female club. We are so much more than you see, so much more.

We are the ancientness of tradition.
We are the merchant ships, judging, choosing, bringing sustenance to our families from afar.
We are our mothers who cried and sang and laughed with hope.
We are strength and dignity, in awe of G-d.
We hold potential, partners in creation, vehicles for redemption.
We are free in our closeness to our creator and our connection to our sisters and homes.
We are the flames that burn steadily, both bringing in the light and keeping out the darkness.
Our candle does not go out by night.
To say that we need to be empowered is persumptous. We have the power already. We need to actualize it.

(Friend speaks)
How do you answer that surety of purpose, that righteous calm? She sounded so content. So high on G-d that it was terrifiying. Yet, I had to admit that while I was horrified, I envied her for being so certain. I grappled with my Judaism all of the time. Why do you think I went to the Kiruv Rabbi for Shabbat? I wasn’t completely in-synch with the whole kosher inside the home, but it’s okay to eat McDonald’s fries and chicken sub, no pork though, or if you have to drive on Shabbat to get to shul its okay thing. I wanted the completeness of a community where people put minyan as a priority, were religious, and learned. I wanted the Orthodox world without all of the esnaring strings that I saw as being attached. When Tiffany and I would talk I would feel this deep yearning the beauty that she had found, but her way was simply not my way. I had to find my own path. See what sort of synthesis I could create, if any. So I continued spending time in the Frum world, still just as uneasy as before. But finally one Shabbat I found the first step down the path upon which I am now happily, slowly, skipping. I met this wonderful Rabbi and his family and in so doing was exposed to a form of Orthodoxy which is comfortable, real, and livable for me. My path. Until that point I had been looking at Tiffany’s path all the time. Seeing the problems, conflicts, thinking that I could never shove my square self into that round hole. Then I am sitting at this Rabbi’s table and his d’var torah tells me exactly what I needed to hear, to think about. He said that all the tribes in the desert surrounded the tabernacle at the center of the camp. Each tribe had its own way to that center, sometimes very different, but as long as they were moving toward that center, no path was illegitimate. All of K’lal Yisroel is like that, he said. As long as we are following Halacha, walking on the path to G-d, whether it be more machmir or meikel, chassidish or litvish, modern or charedi, we are all going for that same center. We should not see our way as better or worse, because we each need to find our own way toward divekut. Differences or downright disagreements in halachic opinions, such as how we view engagement with the outside world, or women’s roles or Zionism, are completely allowed for within the halachic system and while certain things may not resonate with us particularly, we as a people need to remember to be accepting and loving toward both others and ourselves. I got into a long discussion with him and his wife after that, which led to many more such talks. And that is what I have been doing ever since, a lot of questioning and talking and thinking.

But the magic answers still have yet to simply appear. There are still issues and problems that turn me off. But it makes such a difference to know that to be part of the community doesn’t mean that I have to start taking on all sorts of stringencies and live in a much more narrow world than I am used to. I have realized that the absolutist black and white world is a whole lot broader and more open than I had thought previously. Not that I am knocking those who take on stringencies and are careful about exposure. Watching how Tiffany lives is really inspiring actually. And I have come to realize that the Torah world is broad enough for that path as well as my own. Both Tiffany and I are trying for that center. She lives in a Charedi neighborhood, with her Yeshivish Kollel husband and new baby. She has yet to finish up her bachelor’s degree but is so blissfully happy. You could say that I am pretty much modern Orthodox, even though I really don’t wish to label myself at this point or at any other point in the future.
So when people want to hear my story, I tell them that it is nothing too dramatic, pretty long and drawn out and that it is far from over.