By: Jessica Brenner
There are many parallels between becoming an observant Jew and announcing that you’re studying to become a therapist.
Many people don’t realize that this is something that you can become – rather, you either emerge from the womb in tortoise-shell glasses with a look of empathic understanding, or you will hear the most carefully constructed versions of “Who are you to be telling other people how to live?” from friends and acquaintances. Even worse: “Were you in a lot of therapy to have become so inspired?”
Similarly, if you were not born keeping Shabbat, it may seem awfully presumptuous to other people that you should stop answering your text messages for 24 hours. For if you believe that this is the way Jews should practice their religion, it must be that you’re calling wrong those who practice differently.
Certainly, there are those who bring a certain zealousness to their journeys of observance. And there are others, like me, who have craved the opportunity for growth that is entirely their own.
We brush up against each other all the time, don’t we? A friend says that she doesn’t eat meat for ethical reasons, and you feel inherently compelled to justify your carnivorous dinner plate. A fellow parent states that she had a “natural birth,” and my gut twists as I suppress the desire to explain that all births are natural, except the one that goes according to plan. Unfortunately, this is where the psychic pressures that create conformity and fear of difference come in: from the fear that if I am not like you, or do not make decisions which mirror yours, then I must not like, respect, or be able to understand you.
My father, when the topic of Jewish observance comes up, always says something gruff like, “I make my own decisions; I don’t need a rabbi to tell me how to think.” My mother’s relationship to Judaism is innate, but never practical. She seems to have a headache every High Holiday when she is expected to turn up at synagogue, but if someone’s child is marrying a non-Jew, or there is an act of anti-Semitism she can condemn on Facebook, you would think that she founded the religion. But her daughter practicing Judaism on a daily basis, actually praying and keeping kosher? What mishugas.
My journey to Jewish observance has gone through several iterations. In this second wave, as I’ve come to call my growth into a more observant lifestyle, I am married and blessed with several children. There is both incredible relief in this experience (I no longer have to answer to my own parents, at least not directly) and many complications (ensuring consistency for our children while enduring my in-laws’ occasional eyebrow raises).
When I met my husband, I had taken a step backwards in my Jewish practice. I was tired of going at it alone. My husband, though from a nonobservant background, was incredibly open and interested in learning (“I hate that I don’t really know what the significant texts of my own religion actually talk about”). So we agreed to grow together. I loved revisiting the things that had drawn me to Judaism in the first place, through the eyes of the man I loved.
Even so, in the last several years, we’ve realized that Jewish growth can still be a bit messy. Clunky. It’s impossible not to bump up against our own resistance and that of other people the minute you decide to practice anything at all. And sometimes we felt like we were going at it alone, together. Whenever someone asks if we are “Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform” we’ve come to smile and say some version of “traditional.”
But in the last few months, something interesting has happened under our roof. Social distancing has meant no synagogue services, no gathering for holidays, no attending in-person classes at our local Chabad center, and yet, my husband and I feel more Jewishly inspired than ever before.
I believe that this is due to the opportunity to navigate ritual and routine within our own family unit. My husband and I learn together regularly when our children go to bed, and then we evaluate and set goals for our own growth. We are observing Shabbat more carefully than we were before, and our uncluttered calendar has allowed us to move at a steadier pace. “What’s our excuse this week?” I asked my husband with a smirk on the first Friday that we were officially sheltering in place.
Eleven weeks in, it already feels so much smoother and more natural. I can’t put into words what a relief it is to do this with an exaggerated sense of privacy.
Rabbi Manis Friedman shared an insight recently that struck me as absolutely beautiful: when addressing those who were about to make a Passover Seder alone, and completely overwhelmed with how to do so without the support of a rabbi or community, he indicated that it’s clear that God wants from us a more personal Judaism – our own, the kind that can only take place in our homes. Imperfect, perhaps, even a bit out of order, but from your being, in the way that no one else could offer.
Sometimes the most significant changes in life happen when one is alone, free of expectations, and especially noise. The equivalent of having your best ideas in the shower (the last place where humans are alone with their thoughts), or carving out a solitary space for meditation and prayer. It takes a measure of freedom from the grounding forces of everyday life to even hear our calling.
Judaism isn’t normally practiced in isolation. I know it’ll get messy and clunky again when life gets busy, when I am confronted with decisions that I have not had to face in the last several months. Which is why I can’t help but feel grateful for this time to fortify myself and my family, to do what feels right for us.
My hope is that we all come out of quarantine a bit more self-aware, and that that will extend to respect for the role and value of the Jewish family and the choices we each make within it. As far as others’ interest in how I practice Judaism (or therapy), I know that I can let my life and the way I choose to live speak for itself.
And there isn’t anything more authentic, in my mind, than that.