When my father was about 10 years old he was riding his bike along a Hertzelia road on a warm day. He bumped over a rock, slipped off of his bike and into the metal barrier blocking him from the sabra cacti. He broke his arm and needed multiple stitches. When he came to school the following the day with his arm broken, the teacher was elated- my father had no choice but to learn to write with his right hand. For weeks he struggled to write but eventually learned to write, play games, and his favorite activity- draw with his right hand. Even after the cast came off my father used his right hand, he’s been ambidextrous ever since. So it’s not a surprise that I, a twin nonetheless, was left handed. My father always told me this story as a child to remind me how lucky I was that no one tried to “correct” my left-handedness. That didn’t change my teachers from asking me politely somewhere between the second and third month of school to switch desks with someone at the end of the row, so I didn’t bother my right handed peers.
My father is, for lack of a better term, an understatedly incredible person. He did four years in the IDF in a special unit of Intelligence and fought through two wars. After the army he was one of the first people to live in a small yishuv called Ariel, which is now the fourth biggest yishuv in Israel. He moved to America with my mother because the doctors in Israel gave up on them having children, but they didn’t. They both went on to start their own businesses and be very successful for the most part, eventually to have three children.
We lived in a small town in Westchester County whose only Jews identified with Judaism as the religion of bagels, Hannukah presents and Jewish guilt. The Judaism of my young childhood was watching female rabbis sing and hold hands with their husbands at the bima, sitting in the middle of the main sanctuary with all the children during Simchat Torah and the adults in the congregation holding up the completely unwrapped Torah around us. The summer before my twin and I entered first grade, my father sent my other brother to Camp Nagelah. My older brother, going into fifth grade came back wearing a kippah and tzit-tzit, being shomer shabbat and refusing to eat the food in my house. My father sat quietly as my mother ran around the house like a woman on a mission, calling my brother “retarded”, “brain-washed”, and “stupid” for believing in such nonsense. My father would just sit there for hours, until he lost his patience and would yell at her to leave her son alone.
The world shakes out of its cosmic order when my father yells. My father got what he wanted- to bring Hashem back into his home. I don’t know the story of how they went from being observant children in religious homes to hip Israelis traveling the world, making furniture and cutting hair, but I’m sure not having kids for 18 years shakes your faith. When I asked my father why he sent my older brother to Camp Nagelah, he just smiled at me and said in Hebrew, “Children make a home a God fearing one.”
Shabbatot of my childhood were quiet. Often silent Friday night dinners of Yemenite soup and kubaneh so no one would yell at one another, until they inevitably did. My mother would go turn on the TV or go do the laundry the second she finished talking over us while we benched (My family’s custom is to have one person say benching out loud and everyone to respond amen after each bracha) and we would all go upstairs, to just sit on my parents bed and listen to my father tell stories. He would share stories from his childhood, my grandparents lives, midrashim, and stories from Tanach. After shul in the morning we would sit in the living room while reading, playing and hearing more stories from my father. My mother would usually be up in the attic frantically organizing things or going out shopping. After 2008 when the economy crashed, she insisted upon working on Shabbat. After that I would hardly see her at home. My mother is the epitome of a hard working woman, she never stops moving. If everyone had half the drive she did, the world would be a much better place.
I grew up in a house sitting on the precipice of two ideological planes and would shake anytime someone did as much as sneeze. My father is my hero. Although I look just like my father, I took after my mom in most respects- loud, direct, and stubborn. My father always shows respect, restraint, humility, a smile. Things I never saw in myself but was desperate to emulate. One minute he would be talking rapid fire Hebrew to his brother on the phone, the next minute talking to a contractor in English about a blueprint that was inaccurate, naming dimensions off of the top of his head, but apologizing for not having the paper in front of him, all while making pita dough in a big metal pot. My father has this serene aura about him that I can only describe as ambidextrous. He knew how to navigate through life, another skill or virtue of his on his tool belt helping him hack his way through it.
This past November, I woke up one night in a sweat. I had a nightmare, the contents of which I do not remember, and shook my husband awake,
“Aryeh, so many people are in pain.”
“What do you mean? Go back to sleep.”
“Aryeh, Jews. How many people are in so much pain and they just say ‘I’m done’ and they leave? And they’re alone? And they’re so angry. How many Jews are living life pretending that they believe and love because they feel a pressure to? What happened? How can we just keep living like this?”
“Ayala, this is not something you can change at two fifteen in the morning. Go back to sleep.”
Every few days since then I have woken up my husband in the middle of the night to have these conversations. The more people I meet, I read, the more stories or random remarks I hear, the more distressed I am. Jews are in pain. Anyone whose spent more than fifteen minutes in my company can tell you- it haunts me. I deleted all my social media, started screening calls, ignoring invites. I just can’t handle being around people. Everything that anyone says or does I analyze to no end. I have a conspiracy theorist in residence in my mind. He’s really upset that I haven’t completely lost my mind yet.
The general response to the brief moments that I lose my cool around people are well, spooked out.
“That’s a huge burden you’re carrying, but it’s not your job to.”
“You have no chill.”
“Life is just like that.”
“So what are you going to do about it, tell me? Because feeling this way is useless if you’re not going to do anything.”
“You’re being over dramatic”
“Certainly you’re exaggerating.”
“People make their own decisions, you can’t tell people what to do”
“Yeah…can we continue playing Bananagrams now?”
I feel like I think left handed. I grew up in a tiny Jewish bubble which was mostly my father telling me stories and being the only young girl at the local Chabad. Or the weirdo who didn’t go to the movies Friday night and then get pizza because supposedly seeing a movie on a Friday night wasn’t rest. And a plain cheese pizza could be not kosher. I believed in all the stories my father told me, of Jewish people old and new accomplishing incredible feats, overcoming everything. I feel in love with stories, with storytelling, with any life except for my own. I thought I could be one of those people, and that every Jew wanted to be. When I was first exposed to the religious world, I was shocked that there were people who just didn’t care. Who were running on autopilot. Didn’t their parents share with them the same stories that I heard?
It feels like I’m just a left side, turning in circles, slowly digging myself into a hole in the ground, while everyone else is turning right, walking, and building mountains. How does one stop caring? How can I go to sleep when my brain is screaming at me to do something but it’s not my place? I miss sleeping through the night, I miss being able to feel happy. I miss the office in my head that the conspiracy theorist has taken up, my energy.
I don’t have the energy to do anything anymore. It’s just me and my thoughts, stuck in a gridlock. If I was an old Ashkenazi guy who knew nothing but the frum world, perhaps I could do something- people would be willing to listen. If there’s anything the past few years of being in the religious world has taught me, it’s that my place as a young Yemenite girl is to let the men take care of things. Nothing good comes out of sharing your Judaism with other people. Just shut up.
I am not my father’s daughter. I do not have the patience or the faith to hope that people work things out for themselves. I do not have the restraint to sit there and watch people yell and scream at the child that they fought 18 years for and know it turns out okay in the end.
I’ve seen it happen though. I lived it.
When people ask me how I became religious I used to have a real answer but now I don’t really know how it happened.
Pride and Prejudice.
It was like falling asleep.
Then all at once.
Close your eyes and imagine you’re more of the person you want to be than the person you really are.
Acknowledge that everything is going to be okay.
Read a story.
Look down- that’s your tool belt. There’s more in there than you ever realized.
It’s uncomfortable, but pick that tool up with your right hand. It feels wrong as your right arm tingles, being summoned for the first time in quite a few years.
And smash it.