At the smell of cheap beer, my heart beats even faster. My shoes stick to the floor and a deep, muffled beat hits and starts a new pulse in my veins. I am about to enter my favorite place in the world.
Here is where I can let go, and where I remember to hold on to everything that matters. Because this is what matters and this is what life is. Joy. Connection. Feeling your feet become earthly roots and your spirit soar.
In my pre tichel-wearing, Halacha-loving, Torah-learning life, this is where you would find me: searching for the infinite and instead finding myself. In between the drugs, the cat-calls and ladies dressing themselves like brightly colored presents. Weaving through the crowd, my body stone cold sober yet my soul high as a kite. Most nights I would start off dancing with friends and end elsewhere in the room. Not knowing exactly where I was, releasing everything that no longer mattered with my arms upwards and outstretched. I was beautiful, and I was purposeful: my body the electrical socket that Gd plugged into the world. And there I was, finding such deep happiness that it makes my soul ache to just remember it.
I remember one of my last times going out, my friends and I wearing old hoodies that I had rescued from a thrift store for two bucks a pop. It was December in Canada, and as we neared the entrance we cast them aside shivering, with hopes that someone in need would pick them up. I found my place amongst the crowd in my long skirt and tshirt: my latest approximation on covering up my body in order to reveal my soul. As we twisted and turned in the dark hallways, we knew we were coming closer: the lights and pulse getting brighter and louder.
Finally we were there. A balcony with the bar behind us. Stairs leading down to a crowd of thousands. Lights flashing, the colors blinding. And that beat. The pulse of the world. Everyone else heading down to join the celebration of life. And yet this time I couldn’t move. I stood at the rail, gripping it blindly, fighting tears of despair. In less than a month I would be getting on a plane to Israel. I would be leaving all this behind in order to become the holiest version of myself. Though I could feel Gd holding my hand and beckoning me, urging me onto that flight, the knowledge that I had to remove myself from this place of joy and never join it again made me want to stay right there on that balcony forever.
How was it possible that Gd wasn’t in this place? How was it possible, when all I could hear was that deep internal voice screaming into me, telling me that I was good, that this was good, to go dance, to love, and to let the music release the parts of myself that burdened me?
In my plight, I failed to realize that I wasn’t alone. A friend was beside me, leaving for Israel just before I was to make my own journey. I’ll never forget the look of desperation. The confusion. The anger. And the words: “How is it possible that there isn’t Kedusha here?”
I couldn’t answer. We cast aside those troubled thoughts as we headed down to join the others. And once again, for that night, the world was ours.
Seven years later I could tell you that I’ve found the same venue for joy within observant Judaism, but I haven’t. I could tell you that dancing at Simchas and girl’s nights does something even better for my soul, but those are experiences that nourish differently. I could tell you that listening to trance music while jogging, which is solitary and endorphin releasing is similar, or that the heights I’ve reached playing the cello can make up for it, and sometimes it does. But when I put on my earphones while folding laundry and listen to the music that once loved me, my heart breaks just a little. Because I can taste the woman that I once was and I miss her. I want to introduce her, her unbridled love for all things this world, and her music, to my world.
I told my husband about this one night, when our regular run-on conversation reached a rare silent moment.
“I wrote something about dancing. What it was like for me. Before. I miss it. I miss it with everything that I have. I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself that was good and whole and I don’t know how to find her.”
I went on to explain to him what it was like, because he didn’t understand, had never had that experience at a club. What it’s like, to love every inch of yourself, to stretch out with your body and soul. To fill yourself with… yourself, leaving no part untouched and unacknowledged. To be amongst the crowd yet no one is focused on you, because they are on their own journeys. To feel utterly alone, unique, purposeful, while being completely one and connected with everyone in the room. To face your soul, your darkest parts, and say hello with a bright smile and eyes wide open. To have the music bring you to that elevated reality; pulsing, euphoric, grounded, yet ethereal. To feel such joy, such understanding, that you scream with pure happiness, but no one turns around to stare, because your shouts are melting into theirs.
I wish I could go back there.
Honestly? At the frum ladies dance parties I often feel as stared at as when my friends would force me to go to those secular pick up type clubs which they loved and I hated. At best it’s fun, but it’s extroverted fun. Which I am not. Extroverted, that is. In those places I can’t truly let go because I feel eyes on me. The Mechitza at weddings? Somewhat, because the joy is so vibrant and our focus is on celebrating fresh unity, but the music usually doesn’t move me and all it takes is one person complimenting, “I love how unselfconscious you are when you dance!” to get me completely self conscious and retreating to the sidelines. Dance with my husband? Of course, but this fulfills an entirely different need. Dance alone? Yes, and I do, but I’m… alone.
So aside from putting on a disguise and heading back to the Guverment in Toronto where I know I won’t feel objectified and allowed to dance in my own little introverted-yet-connected-to-the-world bubble (believe me, I’m desperately tempted), I’m stuck. My only respite comes once a year, when I can connect to a similar cathartic reality: Yom Kippur. Yes, the experience of standing alone at Beit Knesset, facing my creator, scrubbing my soul, unlocking my chains brings me the same euphoria as going to my favorite club used to. Because there’s nothing like looking at yourself honestly. On Yom Kippur, my soul is beautiful and high because on this day, I release myself from the physical. Yet I am completely connected to this world. The real world. Even more, on this day, looking deeply into my soul, my own self, I speak in the plural. “We.” “Us.” “Our.” I am standing amongst my Klal, knowing that every single person in the room is doing the same internal work. And only when doing this, alone in our growth but together in our goals, can we ascend to where we are meant to be. Alone. Together. There is no contradiction. It’s on this day that I know that I am safe, and the world is safe, because the reason I’m here is because I’m loved. We all are.
But this only happens once a year. And as a young mother, Gd willing I will not get the opportunity for a number of years. So I wait.
Yes, I love Yom Kippur as much as I loved clubbing. It’s my absolute favorite holiday, the peak of my experience as a Jew. Yes, on our holiest day I feel the same level of joy that I felt when inhabiting a place that most people would think revolts me. I’m scared to say this but I must: what I found there in those clubs was good . So good. Good enough that I need to write this, and so pure and holy that I need to start praying that I find that goodness in myself and the world once again. Because I need it. We need it.
And with that I leave you. No answers. No conclusion. Just the yearning of a woman who wishes that she had turned to her friend on that last day and said, “Yes. There is Kedusha here.”