Baal Teshuvas: Don’t Lock Yourselves Into Your Community

Imagine you’ve entered a magical kingdom.  Sure, it has some cracks here and there, and sure, you’ve come to realize that even magic can’t stop the people in the kingdom from being people.

But the kingdom, wow.  What a kingdom.  That’s why you live there, for that kingdom, to live in this world that somehow magically envelopes you into a world that suddenly makes sense, that makes everything even outside of that kingdom sparkle in a new, ethereal way.

Identify with this?  You might be a baal teshuva.  A Jew who may or may not have known his whole life that he was looking for that kingdom and finally found it.

I know, some of you are cynical and maybe don’t see that world as quite so magical anymore, and you’d rather focus on the king, or the rules of the kingdom (maybe fashioning yourself a sheriff) or the enemies of the kingdom.  Or maybe right now you’ve just walked in and your eyes are still blinded at how beautiful it all is, and so it’s hard to see the cracks.  We’re all at different stages as we start to move into this kingdom.

But we’re here, aren’t we?

And often, what this means to us within our hearts is that we have no choice but to stay here.  We have to shop here (actually, that one’s in the rules, unless we find a cheaper place outside), eat what they eat here (also in the rules), hang out with the folks in here (gray area).

You understand I mean Jewish communities when I’m talking about the kingdom, right?  (Just a little help for my more literal readers, sorry for the pause).

But there’s a problem, see.  An incongruence, if you will.

The kingdom is magical, true.  It’s our true home, also true.  It’s where we’re meant to be and thrive and connect, true true true.

But see, there was a world we came from outside that kingdom, once upon a time.  Before our happy ending, before we set off in the sunset.  Before our prince or princess swooped in and moved us into our own personal palace.

In other words, you’re Belle, and now you have servants (formerly of the tea cup and candle stick variety), pretty dresses (guys, don’t get scared, I’m sure you’re wearing something masculine), and all the grey stuff you could desire (“Try it, it’s delicious!”).

Life before the kingdom

But you grew up in a little house, in a tiny town.  It was humble, calm, and your dad was a mad scientist (Oh man, this is actually hitting home.  Go analogy.  Sorry dad.).  There were bars, and good folks, down to earth folks, even if they didn’t understand you and your constant draw to these books and need to go outside the town’s jurisdiction.

You understand I’m talking about your past life, right guys? (Again, just trying to help out the readers that get angry at me when I don’t write like a copy machine, spitting out what I have inside.  Oh gosh, I’m doing it again).

And so you’re from this little town.  And you have a crazy dad.  And you’re not used to wearing these fancy dresses or grey stuff or even just the whole living in a kingdom thing.  No matter how hard you try, no matter how good it fits, no matter how much everyone accepts you, no matter how much you prefer it in the kingdom, you’ll always have come from that town.

Now, the citizens of the kingdom are often full of love and concern for you, and they’ll say, “It’s okay!  We need some of the skills they learned in the village! We’re not perfect here either, you know.”

But they’ll want you to stay in that kingdom, you see.  For all the love they show you, for all they will respect your past and your vision and your skills from the old town, they want you to stay in the walls.  Kind of like the people from your old town, interestingly enough.

Here’s the thing, though: you may fit in, but there is so much these people in the kingdom will never understand about you.

Now, I think they made a sequel to Beauty and the Beast, but let’s imagine for a minute they didn’t because it probably stinks.  In the real sequel, I think that Belle would have had trouble staying inside the kingdom all the time.  She’d want to visit her old friends (I mean, the bookstore guy at the very least, amiright?).  And I know she wasn’t so into bars, but there would probably be something a bit nostalgic about looking back on those days at the very least.

No matter what, she’s a lady living in a magical kingdom who has a whole history its citizens can’t understand, identify with, or talk on the same level as.  And ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Except for the fact that the people in the kingdom don’t understand this.  They think you belong there, that you should stay there.  That since you were meant to be a prince or princess anyway, you can get everything you need in the kingdom.  Maybe even you don’t understand that, wanting so hard to fit in.  But you’re an immigrant, with a different native language and culture.

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But the truth is that this history of yours, it’s important.  Important for many reasons, including the tools you can bring into the kingdom, and the magic you can bring outside of the kingdom.  But it also matters for you on a personal level if you want to be healthy.

When the kingdom fails us

Maybe now it’s time we leave the analogy for a moment.  Is that okay with you, my metaphor-lovers?  Maybe let’s give ourselves over a bit to the literalists.

I used to work for the people in the magical kingdom, the Jews.  Man, did I hate it.  And at first, I blamed them.  How could they do this and that!  Worse than the townspeople, ugh!  (Damnit, I’m still doing the metaphor, I’m sorry, I swear it’ll get literal soon).

And when the going got tough, I went to a frum (aka magical) therapist.  But he sucked!  And so I went to another.  He also sucked!  Then another.  Again!

Anyway, the magic kingdom was starting to seem quite unmagical at this point.  But what was I supposed to do?  This was my home now.  I needed to settle.  Or else… maybe I didn’t belong?

And see, this was the problem.  This was the root of this small town kid’s mistakes.  And I think there are some other princes and princesses with the same problem.

It wasn’t the poor therapists’ fault they couldn’t help me, you see.  They didn’t speak my language, that of a former hippie, former secular, former lover of the weed, current addict to Netflix (ah, now we’re getting literal!).  They didn’t understand the culture I grew up in, or the history that was more than two thirds of my life.  How on earth could I expect them to do a good job counseling me?

Same with the jobs.  They didn’t work the way I was used to working, what with the paying on time and all that.  Poor fellows, they thought because I lived in a magical kingdom I could magically create money to pay for my very unmusical apartment.

I’ll be honest, it got unbearable at a certain point.  But I had no desire to leave the kingdom.  The kingdom is nice.  I like the magic, don’t you?  Worth it, even.  But I wondered, maybe there is a way to live in the kingdom and also not completely reject my past?  Maybe that’s what I was supposed to do all along, who knows? I wondered.

And so I said, okay, I’m going to venture back into town.  Still a prince, wearing my crown (kippah, you damn literalists) and robe (tztitzis), with a big fat beard.  And to them, fine, they don’t see my crown as a crown, fair enough.  Most simply saw a foreigner, unknowing he grew upon in their world.

But I decided to go for it anyway.  Find a job in the outside world.  Find a psychologist, doctor, everything, outside.

And suddenly… I was home.  I mean, I wasn’t home, but I was.  These people understood the basis of my life, my past, my language.  They were brought up to speed about who I was now, but that’s much easier than going in the reverse direction, you understand.  Rewinding always takes longer than fast forwarding.

Now, I’m sure some in the kingdom will look at this and say I’m a weakling, that I shouldn’t have done that, that I’m going to be “influenced” by my small hometown.

I get it, I sympathize.  But I’m proud of my choice, because I did what was healthy for me.  I got the parnassah and the help from the people who get me.  Sure, they don’t like how the magical kingdom does some of its stuff, but truth is, neither do I.  I just believe in the king, and I know that I love the kingdom, and that it will always be my true home, even if I’m an immigrant.

Don’t lock yourself in

A Jewish community is a wonderful, beautiful thing.  But it shouldn’t be a jail.  It shouldn’t cause us to do things that are unhealthy for us.  Working for people just because they’re a more convenient way to get a job.  Getting care from a psychologist that does not help us just because we’re worried the other ones will convince us to leave the kingdom.

In my opinion, that’s weakness.  To be so afraid of your old life that you don’t take the risks necessary to live your life as healthily, as beautifully as possible.  To forget that there really is no contradiction between being from a small town and living in a kingdom, that they’re both on the same earth, and that the small town (secular world) doesn’t just exist for “tools” but actually possesses its own magic, a magic the kingdom often doesn’t see because its so blinded by its own.

Baalei teshuva need to be healthy, and they need to do whatever it takes to be healthy.  Otherwise, they’re just cripples that happen to be surrounded by magic.  And the KFB (Kingdom From Birth) people will always have a leg up on us, in health, in happiness, in home-feeliness.  Not right.  Not what the King wants.

The best decision I’ve made since moving to a religious community in the last three years was this decision to go outside of my community for much of the help I needed, from psychology to work to everything else.  Now, suddenly, I feel stronger.  Happier.  Life isn’t a burden.  And, ultimately, I’m bringing not just “tools” into my magical kingdom, but a bit of magic of my own.  This strength has given me a chance to live the life both in and out of the kingdom I’ve always wanted to live.

Baalei teshuva, you deserve more than a limited existence.  You deserve more than to be misunderstood or to put yourself in bad situations for the sake of being “frum”.  If you’re happy, and you have no problems, and you fit right into the magic, then nevermind, you prince/princess you.  But if you’re like the 99%, you have an obligation to yourself to do what it takes to be healthy, to be happy, to be stable.

And quite often, that means leaving the kingdom.