Every Baal Teshuvah Thinks About Going Back

When you’ve swum in the ocean at midnight, danced to psytrance in the rain in the Vermont woods at 3 AM; when you’ve woken up in the middle of cow fields in Colorado, and when you’ve gotten so high that you thought you were a pink blanket; and when now you spend most of your time in an apartment in Brooklyn struggling to balance caring for a baby and working at a computer — it’s hard not to think about going back.

I wouldn’t go back, but I’m not going to lie: I think about the old days and there are certain things I still want that I can’t have. To be more specific, there are things I would like to do that I cannot do. The only material things that I want that I can’t have are jeans and pho. I love jeans. I love everything about wearing jeans. I used to wear these worn-in jeans with a pair of Fluevog cowboy boots and a black T-shirt and silver hoop earrings. That was my power outfit. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t miss wearing it.

People read my stuff and think I’m like some gung-ho chick who drank the Chabad Kool-Aid and now thinks the Charedi lifestyle is effing wonderful. It’s not. There is a reason why living in the service of G-d is called “Self-Sacrifice”. It’s because you sacrifice what you want to do in favor of doing something in the service of G-d. Not in the service of fitting under the black hat of Brooklyn; but the service of G-d. There is a G-d in the world. I came here for Him/Her. I didn’t come here because I like wearing stupid bulletproof tights.

A main objective of my life before teshuvah was adventure. You could call it adventure. It might be more accurate to call it “getting the lead out”. If it didn’t end in me riding my bike home drunk, flying through the middle of Mass Ave in Cambridge when the traffic had thinned to nothing, it wasn’t worth it. I was clearly looking for transcendence. I chased transcendence through the physical world and mostly ended up overtired and hung over. I didn’t do teshuvah because I wanted to wear a lousy wig. I did teshuvah because it offered me a way out of cognitive dissonance. It was the only way out.

Sometimes when things are lame around here, I suck my teeth like an angry drag queen and say, “I did not do teshuvah for this.” I didn’t give up my jeans, my fun, my drugs, my parties, my camping trips, my contact improv jams, soaking in hot springs, and going away to music festivals to live a boring, shallow life. I gave all that stuff up to live a deep life and to be connected to G-d and by way of which to finally be OK.

I haven’t quit a job in six years. I do not pack up my car and flee to the wilderness because now I can’t.

I think every baal teshuvah thinks about going back (whether in positive or negative terms). How could we not? How could we not weigh the present against the past? But the operative thing is to remember that the old world isn’t better. The reason I sought out so much craziness was because I was miserable and I needed breaks of transcendence from it. I could feel OK at 1 AM dancing to Brazilian house music in a hollowed-out cathedral. But the next morning, I had to wake up and face myself again.

I don’t have any sure theories on why people leave “the fold”. There are a million unique reasons. I can only say that I don’t leave because I am responsible to my husband, to my son, and to G-d. I made a commitment and I’m sticking it out. And I feel like G-d gets taken out of these discussions.

It’s like when Arlo Guthrie is singing “Alice’s Restaurant” and he’s going on and on about getting picked up for littering and getting drafted into the army, and then he stops and says, “Remember Alice?” Remember that there is a transcendent being in the world, and this whole life we frum Jews live isn’t about the B.S.? It isn’t about the communities; it isn’t about stuffing your whole identity into a tiny, hot black wool hat or an itchy wig; I didn’t come here because I think that it’s easy, and not because I think that frum Jews are blameless. It’s certainly not why I stay.