Journey To The Center Of The Earth

~I never hoped that some time in this mysterious life,

I’d wind up wound up, and wrapped around;

Parchment, inked with words of truth beyond any other truth,

Derived and passed down and translated and transcribed;

Given over and under and through and through.

We’ve traveled many miles to receive and embark,

Down many bumpy paths, laughing through that

choked up throaty feeling I’ve been feeling,

And stealing and trailing along and off,

Maybe it makes sense to simply live in awe.

And,

Trust that someone bigger, loftier, closer to the source;

The very source Himself,

Pulls the strings, and the wings of all

the jittery, icky creatures who gravitate towards the center and towards the light.

Pulling and pressing and shaping their flawed and small impressions into,

Some endless, earthly, humane search for meaning.

Advancing and accepting the text at face value, removing its writer,

Killing its author. And going forward.

With the terrifying knowledge that man,

Actually thinks he has control.

When the foundation of this very playground, this lively, colorful muck of

a world, created; and willed into existence

Still exists,

Because someone once decided He will, and it should.

And so it was good. ~

I always had a strong feeling that G-d was real. Despite growing up in a home with no prayer books or bedtime Shema, or Parsha songs, or Friday night singing: I just had a feeling. It could’ve been for a lot of reasons, objectively, there are tons of reasons to believe in G-d. Maybe because the world is so full of sparkly magical things that one would be foolish to believe that it came about with no adamant creator. Perhaps one may consider any alternative to be overly empty of meaning, too shallow, too disheartening. G-d is a comfort tool, or at least that’s what I grew up thinking. I didn’t believe in G-d for any whimsical, transcendental reason.

I believed in G-d because I was lonely, and He, of all beings, was always there to listen.

I knew there was something more than the plastic backpack I had loaded up with clothing and an empty journal. I knew there was something more than my anxious hand, too terrified to turn the lock on the front door – horrified that someone would hear me slip out. There needed to be a reason for my still and gray existence, soaked in adolescent trouble; the near sited depression of youth, peer pressure, and, underdevelopment. Someone is watching all this happen, someone is making it happen. Someone listens, someone cares; someone made this decision for me. Someone hears me.

I often looked for G-d in nature, even though I didn’t mean to. In rural Ontario, I stomped around my icky, woodsy backyard, singing small, little kid songs to the wind and the sky, walking and talking and listening. There was something so natural about talking to G-d, even if I didn’t know a thing about Tefila. Even if I grew up without that word in my vocabulary.

I did not grow up observing Yom Kippur, yet something about this notion felt strange and utterly wrong. I was told that fasting as long as I could would be fine, even though my mother did not lead by example. One year, I quietly observed her as she melted into the coach, warm coffee clutched in her palms, cigarette smoke headed high and dry, rising towards the lofty ceiling of our country living room. Behind her, I quietly rustled my hand in a box of Corn Flakes, hoping she wouldn’t hear, unsure if I cared if she did.

I ate and felt guilty.

I knew what Yom Kippur was, even if there was no shul for miles to go to discuss it with G-d in.

So before I broke my short-lived fast, I took a moment to talk to G-d about it remotely. I made my way into my room and shut the door. I spoke out loud and more or less, apologized for my inability to follow G-d’s will. I closed my eyes and I spoke and apologized with no real knowledge of what I was doing.

After giving my piece, I went on to break my fast with the bag of Doritos (original flavor) nestled safely in the bowl of moldy fruit on my kitchen counter.

If I would’ve known ahead of time that this would be one of my last Dorito-themed Yom Kippurs, maybe I would’ve eaten a few more.

* * *

When I was 15 years old, I walked into a Jewish school for the first time in my life. I spent the summer before learning how to read Hebrew with my grandmother; a Hebrew teacher by trade. She said if I was going to go to a Jewish school, I would need to learn. So I did. I was always a bright kid – I picked up on things quickly. But the Hebrew alphabet squiggled and twisted in ways I had never seen. My grandmother was extremely patient with me and eventually, I got the hang of it. With this knowledge in my pocket, I was ready.

Here I come Jewish school, whatever on earth that means in a time like this.

On the first day I received my schedule and reviewed it anxiously. It had a lot of words on it that I had never seen in my life. Words like “Mechina,” “Navi,” and, eventually “Talmud.” The words I recognized were “European History,” “Algebra” and, “Bible.” The word “Bible” sent a little message to my brain that something religious was going to go down. I didn’t know much about connecting G-d to religious practice, or how a belief system is a reflection of its literature, but to be honest, I’m not sure anyone does.

I sat in my “Mechina” class confused as to why it was so small and what exactly would happen in it.  I eventually learned that “Mechina” was code for some sort of beginner’s class; for kids who raised their hands and asked questions like, “what’s a Rashi, and why does he keep commenting on everything?” I watched as the rabbi, sweet in demeanor, scribbled some words on the board. At first I thought I just couldn’t read his handwriting, but then I realized I had no idea what the heck he was writing up there at all. When I raised my hand to ask, he told me that he was writing in Hebrew. At this, a few kids chuckled and looked at me curiously.

No he wasn’t.

 I know how to read Hebrew. I just spent my whole summer learning! There must be some sort of mistake here.

That night I called my grandmother, and told her that the rabbis in my school don’t know how to write in Hebrew. I told her the Hebrew she taught me was completely different from what I saw at school. I heard her grimace over the phone. Kindly, she assured me that everything was fine. She told me:

Sweetie, he must’ve been writing in script.

Oh…

With a rocky beginning and endless classic “BT” (Ba’al Teshuva) moments, I managed to make it through three years of Jewish school with a pretty subpar foundation. I knew chunks of Sefer Bereshit pretty well, and I knew all about Yonah and his friend, the large ambiguous fish character. I learned basic Hebrew grammar and even got good at it. I guess in a way, this is where it all started.

Naturally, learning Torah made me extremely curious. I was always asking questions about why people did what they did and why things were phrased the way they were.

I remember learning Parshat Lech Lecha for the first time, where G-d tells Avraham to drop his life and hit the road. And Avraham did it, just because G-d said to. I still didn’t know much about G-d at this point in my life, but I related deeply to Avraham in the moment of his departure. I had just moved to New York and everything was new and different. I had no idea how I had landed in this small classroom with a religious figure as an educator.

In this strange land where boys and girls sit separately in the morning, one gender adorned with black leather straps and weird boxes fasted firmly to their heads.

Dusty books grasped and shut firmly, opened only as a response to the passing by of an authority figure, one named, “The Davening Police.”

This would take some getting used to.

I was irritated when I was told I would need to wear a skirt to school. This seemed gross and pretentious and made me resent the notion of attending a “private school” even more than I already did. I had spent my life in a normal school – nothing special or fancy or expensive. I really had no interest in walking around looking weird and formal. I also hadn’t owned a skirt since before I was old enough to dress myself. But this was the condition of moving to New York. Jewish kids go to Jewish schools and wear skirts while they do it. Okay, fine. I could do that.

And so I did. I walked around in a strange “modern orthodox” length skirt. I quickly learned from example that it didn’t actually need to go to my knees. It wasn’t such a big deal, I decided. I found it strange how girls were always in trouble over what they were wearing – fidgeting with their necklines and yanking their skirts lower. I didn’t see what the big deal was, but never got in trouble myself so, I guess I didn’t pay too much attention.

No one ever told me what modesty was or what it meant – I don’t think I even heard the word “Halacha” until I made my way to Israel for the year. It only recently occurred to me how much of a problem this was, but we’ll get to that.

Looking back, I find it strange that I never questioned the divine origins of the Torah. There was something so natural about accepting that it just is. I simply took the words for what they said, I repeated them, I got the questions right on the test, and I was interested. I never heard anything that deterred me, and nothing ever turned me off enough to turn me away.I recognize that this is oddly idealistic. I do question, but I also tend to find myself back in the same place.

Interested and eager to learn more.

I liked my Jewish classes more than my English classes (mostly). I liked keeping Shabbat at home with my family. I liked washing before bread and praying in the morning. There was so much meaning in it – so much structure. Every menial task required some level of elevation, some justification and reframing. Nothing was a simple nothing task. Everything had reason and light and G-d nestled somewhere inside of it. You just needed to look for it.

I couldn’t just throw food into my mouth without thanking the One who made it. I couldn’t go through an entire week without imitating G-d, resting when He rested, observing the laws of His Sabbath. Of course, all of this meaning was hypothetical at the time – because even though there was something real about it, something true and hopeful beneath the surface, there was still an endless amount for me to learn, something I didn’t realize at the time.

But still,

It was almost uncanny how natural it was for me to fall into the patterns of “being Jewish,” and suddenly, without my consent, my previous “other life,” became completely and utterly, “other.” I couldn’t image mixing meat and milk, and the idea of flicking the light switch off on Shabbat brought fear into my heart. Realizations like this one drew my attention back to the amateur Yom Kippur endeavors of my youth; the notion of feeling observed.

Existing under a microscope. Someone bigger and wider and authoritative, watching and taking notes. Someone pulling the strings and crafting lofty expectations of my intentions and my deeds.

And suddenly, I became very apologetic and even more so, cautious.

At this point, no one had told me to be afraid of G-d, I just sort of knew I was supposed to be. However these fears were properly solidified after I finished high school and was given the option spend the upcoming school year in Israel.

Apparently, this was a thing that people did. It seemed like a good idea to me: Go to Israel, learn Torah, and, delay going to college for a year. All of this was theoretical and surreal, and I had no idea how to navigate my way.

When it came time to choose a seminary I wandered around in the dark. I acquired a whole new vocab of words and phrases in order to properly discuss each option properly.

For months, all I heard was,

“If you go there you’ll flip out entirely.”

“Do you want to come home wearing tights?”

“This school is too fluffy for you.”

“This one’s Gemara based, do you know what that means?”

“All the girls are basic, you’ll hate it.”

 

Truthfully, I had no idea what on G-d’s green earth I was getting myself into. I just wanted to go to Israel, the land of mysterious milk and even more mysterious honey. I knew Israel only in the form of two-dimensional photographs and stale Shuk candy. I didn’t really care which seminary I chose, I just knew I needed to get to Israel.

In the end, I was encouraged to choose a “discussion based” seminary as a “text based” seminary may be too difficult for me “considering my background.” At the time this didn’t offend me as I knew it was true. However, I didn’t fully understand the difference until I came back.

So I chose a school, booked a ticket, and that was that.

I remember being terrified of the packing list, almost more than the idea of spending the year in a foreign country. This list had its bases covered, from necklines to knees to elbows. I kissed my jeans goodbye without even realizing it. Everyone told me seminary was extremely different from high school. Seminary would brain wash me, I’d “flip out” and stop talking to my male friends.

I didn’t know much about what all of that meant, but it seemed rather artificial. For some reason, being “frum” was made out to be a negative thing and I wasn’t quite sure why.

The more “frum” you are, the less normal, the less chill.

You don’t “hang out” anymore.

You’re judgmental.

I knew of all these stereotypes after keeping Shabbat for less than three years and occasionally wearing a skirt out of the house. Apparently, all it took was one year of Hebrew grammar, attending a conservative camp for one summer, and a USY bus trip for another. I was new but I understood pretty quickly – learning about Judaism and practicing it were two very different things.

* * *

I remember landing in Ben Gurion as the applause of the passengers rung out. I was exhausted and overwhelmed by the longest flight I’d ever taken. I remember slipping through the glass entrance of the busy and bustling airport. The humid, Tel Aviv air grabbed my face and told me exactly where I was. The sky was pink and purple, like a story book from a few lives ago. The palm trees rocked between salty breezes and rolled along with roaring plane engines overhead. My eyes were heavy and drippy. Girls all around me were getting to know each other, suitcases clunking along. We loaded into a large black van and I quickly fell asleep with my head against the window…

In seminary I heard words I never heard before, a trend that had become familiar and expected at this point…

…Shomer Negiah

Hishtadlut

Halacha

Chayev Kares

Tznious

Mussar

Emunah

Kol Eisha …

… Among others. Apparently there was more to being Jewish than merely keeping Shabbat and Kosher. There were laws I had never heard about, and certainly ones that were never enforced. There was something scary about it all and I had trouble tying it all together. Why didn’t I learn these things in high school? It was as if there were all these secret rules I never knew about before. I couldn’t understand how all these things had been so easily swept under the rug.

It was as if my vantage point of G-d had tipped entirely, as if I was seeing Him from a whole new angle. Except I didn’t like this angle. Who is this man in the sky? And what does He want from me? I had a lot of questions, and I wasn’t afraid to ask them.

So let me get this straight:

~ There’s this thing called “G-d,”

All powerful, all knowing, all seeing, all being.

And he put me here, on this lowly, earthly earth,

To serve him.

Me? Really? But how can that be?

Next I was told that G-d was truly everywhere.

In the trees in the air and the sky.

In the water and the clouds.

And that’s not all. He created all this.

And here I am – followed by this evil will, this Yetzer Hara, given to me on purpose,

By the one who created it in the first place – flawed – with the goal to correct and fix and renew.

And the rules piled up on me – higher and higher – no touching, talking, singing, drinking,

There was no taking off,

There was only putting on and zipping up and taking notes.

And a lot of crying. ~

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my gap year and just about everything about it. I loved living in Israel surrounded by growth oriented people and spiritual leaders. I fell madly in love with Jerusalem and its harp shaped bridge and shimmering sunsets. But when I came home I noticed a couple of things.

The first one was that I was absolutely terrified of G-d.

The second was that I had no idea how to learn Torah by myself.

I had gone to Israel hoping to come back with a sense of autonomy – a homey relationship with the infinite and Judaism as a whole. I wanted to be perfect.

I wanted a clear connection with G-d.

I wanted every prayer to be dripping with Kavannah.

I wanted every Parsha to inspire me.

I wanted to meditate and take walks in the woods and look for G-d.

I wanted to mean it.

And part of me did. But the other part was so terribly weighed down by every time I accidently slept in and missed Shacharit.

Every time I slipped up with what I wore or who I touched or where I went.

My Yirat Shemayim was the center of my universe. I kept it in a tiny glass ball with food and water and wall décor.

Around my neck I wore it so tightly, it would choke me and starve me. I needed a new translation and I needed it badly.

I needed to love G-d and live with less fear, less anxiety.

But I didn’t know how to.

Last summer I was fortunate enough to return to Israel, again with questions.I’m a big believer in simple explanations. If you need a lot of words to explain something, then you’re missing the point.

Again, I addressed my two largest concerns.

  1. I am terrified of my creator
  2. I have no idea how to learn Torah

My first problem was solved by a kind, bearded rabbi with soft eyes and a warm smile. While sitting in his shiur I noticed his translation of “Yira” was not “fear,” as I had previously known it to be,

But awe.

He described it as a “knowing,” an acknowledgment that G-d was in the room. A notion of adapting ones behavior to appeal to the presence of the infinite.

The rabbi told me that one must always acknowledge G-d, the same way one sees man.

Equally present. One must be aware, but there’s no reason to be so scared.

I felt silly in this moment. It seemed so simple. Just be aware of G-d… To this day I am in the process of updating my dictionary.

When I say that I had no idea how to “learn Torah,” I don’t mean cracking open the Parsha and skimming it in English, or carrying around a tiny Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just) and reviewing it every here and there. This is Torah nonetheless and beautiful at that,

But I wanted more.

I wanted to be able to open up a Halacha Sefer and see everything inside. I wanted sources and page numbers. I wanted to learn in Lashon H’kodesh, without subpar translations and a tutor leaning over me. I wanted access to the book that was given to the Jewish people – men and women alike. I didn’t want to sit and listen to a Shiur on my phone or sit in a classroom hearing about Shidduch stories and what to look for in a husband.

I wanted access, but had no idea how to get it.

A friend of mine recently deciphered the seminary and yeshiva models for me. A seminary is a classroom, but a yeshiva is a Bet Medrash.

A house of study – of reading and receiving and sharing.

It never bothered me until recently that my seminary did not teach Gemara. It recently donned on me that there’s a whole world of Jewish thought I know nothing at all about.

To me, it felt entirely inaccessible. Women don’t learn Gemara, women have no obligation in Talmud Torah.

Is this why it feels so entirely inaccessible? Is this why I feel confused and strange when the chazzan at Shacharit whispers “Shelo Asani Eisha” (thank you for not making me a woman), and I look around wondering if I’m obligated to answer, “Amen?”

Is this why I feel uncomfortable and confused when I need to ask for translations and for things to be repeated with a slower tempo?

Maybe I can dress modestly and Daven until I’m blue in the face, and the sun sets and the raccoons start digging through the trash cans.

But I can’t crack open a Sefer and learn it alone. I can’t deliver a Dvar Torah without feeling utterly terrified that someone will correct my pronunciations or my narrative.

I feel like a huge faker when I explain that “I just know it’s Halacha!” But I don’t know where to find it inside. I can’t teach it, I can only repeat it.

But is this all bad? Surely it goes the other way too. I cannot bare to see the Torah studied as a piece of academia – like Shakespeare or Kant. It’s more than philosophy or a book of laws and stories.

It’s everything, it’s all inclusive.

The Torah is poetry, music, law;

Awe.

Linguistically and divinely crafted to be studied and applied.

But only with the author in mind.

So where’s the happy medium? Judaism is about creating a balance. It’s a life style, thorough and all inclusive. We must keep this in mind when we discuss its expectations. Belief in G-d, Tefila, and, Talmud Torah are in no way separate from each other. In fact they’re deeply woven together, creating a bond that mustn’t be split apart.

It’s not about other people – or intelligence or being a “good learner” or a “good Davenner.” It’s not a point system or  a game of who knows more or learns more. It’s about accessibility. It’s about translating correctly.

It’s about excusing yourself from the stereotypes, and the expectations,  and, the preconceived notions people apply when you tell them “where you’re holding.”

It’s about personal growth, exploration, and, overall,

Awe.