A family goes walkabout at Canary Wharf.

I’m Ba’al Teshuvah From Birth

I have this memory from when I was a kid – eight years old, late at night, sitting on my bed in the attic-converted-to-my-bedroom. I have homework to finish and I’m anxious. By the next day, I have to memorize the ‘ma nishtana’ in both Hebrew and Yiddish. I’m behind.

Tatte, ich vil ba dir freggin…

My father sits next to me. He’s trying to help me. “Say it for me, Elham. I’ll test you,” he gently nudges me. My father takes the worn paper from my hand and looks at me expectantly. But between us lies an unspoken truth — his Hebrew is broken. And he can’t read Yiddish.

I had to help myself.

Growing up in an Orthodox community, you learn that people are generally dumped into two categories: those who are Frum From Birth (FFBs) or Ba’alei Teshuvah (BTs). My parents are categorized in the latter – returnees to faithful observance of Jewish law, ie not-born-Orthodox. (They’re sephardic and were raised with very strong traditional observance, so they rail against this classification. But for all-intents-and-purposes, it fits.)

By comparison, I would be described as FFB: raised in the fold; studied in Chassidic schools my whole childhood; totally enmeshed in halachic Judaism.

Yet something about that label doesn’t fit me — and it’s not just because I have vague memories of watching Happy Days on some Saturday afternoons when I was a young girl.

In my late teens I encountered a whole subculture of FFB kids who, for some reason or another, were no longer observant. What was interesting was that so many of the ones I met were children of ba’alei teshuvah. During late night conversations while taking the 3 train back into Crown Heights, I heard stories of fathers who couldn’t help their frustrated sons with their Gemarah homework and parents who covered up details about their lives from before they were observant and times when their questions about G-d or the value of halachic observance were met with challenge, disbelief, or anger.

“Why couldn’t our parents answer our questions? Hadn’t they answered these same questions for themselves when they became frum?”

Maybe yes, maybe no.

I related to their stories of not fitting in. I felt their pain when they had to stifle their questions in fear of waking from slumber their parents’ unresolved doubts. I understood how somehow, their parents expected them to make the choices they only wished they could, so many years back.

There was something different about us, those whose parents came to halachic Judaism later in life. It went beyond the obvious — and I wondered if it was just me who noticed it.

Years later, when I was a full time filmmaker, my semi-secret desire was to produce a documentary about children of ba’alei teshuvah. I wanted to tell our stories. Of our yearning to belong, even while hauled in so many directions. Of how we deeply understood the pull to both the mundane and the holy. How being the “religious cousins” was simultaneously privileged and excruciating. And how our parents choices affected us in so many ways.

As I shared this idea with friends, I encountered a whole slew of people who, like me, felt they held a unique place in the Jewish community as children of ba’alei teshuvah. And that perhaps, if others recognized that, our experiences would be understood differently, with greater subtlety, sensitivity and distinction.

See, as children of ba’alei teshuvah, we are a part and apart from our parents’ path.

Our parents go on this crazy journey where they choose to leave so much behind and embrace a whole new world – and a whole new identity. They have to create an integrated, complete person from the shards of the person they once were – and the world they once knew. It’s a metamorphosis. A process. For some, it’s subtle and slow. For others, drastic and quick.

As children of ba’alei teshuvah, we directly inherit this struggle and mandate from our parents. From day 1, we’re straddling different worlds. From day 1, we’re asked to assimilate contrasting spheres and hold them inside ourselves. From day 1, we’re demanded to stand inside while peering from without.

We are the ultimate paradox, incarnate.

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I memorized the ‘ma nishtana’ in both Hebrew and Yiddish. I stood tall on a chair in my shul when I was eight years old and recited it for a whole room full of people, loud and clear, with so much pride. “Tatte, ich vil ba dir freggin…” The accent, perfect. The tune, spot on. This little persian girl named Elham nailed it, even as the Rabbi joked how delightfully odd and surprising it was that she did.

My father never learnt Yiddish and his Hebrew is still a bit slow. While learning more and more chassidus and becoming more and more entrenched in the community, he still holds on to many of his beliefs that did not fit easily into the schema of Chabad (his favorite to share: why it is so important for our children to go to college). We fought a lot. I tried to convince him to be like every other man I respected.

As the years went on, my father continued to further define his personal relationship with G-d, on his own time. The kippah came. The tzitzis. The trimmed beard. The shiurim at shul. The traditional chassidic garb. Most recently, forty years after his chance encounter with a Chabad Rabbi, my father decided to stop trimming his beard. His facial hair now flows long, thick and white, a trusted witness to the hundreds of miles my father traveled on his journey to self-refinement.

To Teshuvah.

How beautiful to have the merit to observe something so intimate, so nuanced, so complex as this.

To witness his choices.

We, the children of ba’alei teshuvah, did not choose this life in the same way our parents did.

Yet, like our parents, we are constantly choosing.

I am constantly reconciling.

And that is why I am ba’al teshuvah from birth.

Because, like my parents who stand behind me,

I bear the weight of worlds that seem to live only in opposition

But inside me, meld into one.

I am a struggler,

I am a chameleon,

and I am a warrior.

And that, my friends, is the only thing I am from birth.