Uncovered

Orthodox Judaism has a uniform. It varies according to sect and strictness of observance, but it’s always there, worn as an identity.

As a child, I wore long, mid-calf skirts, sleeves below my elbows and necklines that covered my collarbone. I was lucky I could wear kneesocks, I couldn’t stand the feeling of tights, and I had room for expression with my hair and earrings. I pushed the boundaries as far as I could which wasn’t very far but made me a rebel. I got long cowboy boot earrings and rolled my socks down to my ankles. I pulled my sleeves up and stretched out my collars.

When I was a teenager, I exchanged that uniform for the one that branded me as trouble. I wore provocative graphic t-shirts I had cut so they fell off one shoulder. I stole my boyfriend’s jeans and cargo pants and sported big black clunky boots. My hair hung around my face, stringy and unkempt. My hands, encased in homemade fingerless gloves, smelled like an ashtray and constantly twitched.

When I tried sobriety on, I bought wrap-around skirts that swept the ground and kept my t-shirts closer to my body.

And then, when the boy who wore flannel shirts on top of sweatshirts and baggy pants added tzitzit that flew behind him and a kippa that got lost in his wild hair, I thought about another uniform. He asked me to dinner one night. I got a haircut, put on my sister’s clothing, and said yes when he asked me to marry him sporting short hair and a clean collared shirt.

Very soon after, he walked down to meet me, a black hat I had never seen on his head, and the white fabric I uncomfortably wore constricted around me. The hat never reappeared, but a different kind took its place, and a beard grew with sidelocks, and black and white only on Shabbat, and I didn’t care because when you don’t believe in god, you don’t shake a marriage over a uniform. And anyway, my skirts and shirts were changing with every season, every pregnancy, and every time I looked in the mirror and couldn’t recognize the woman staring back at me.

But my head stayed under wraps. Always, I kept my hair tucked beneath fabric I fought with each morning.

Until he started sharing his doubts with me.

We started to strip. Slowly, we took off the bits of cloth that weighed us down and told the world the lie we once believed. And then it was down to a little bandana wound around my brain. Every day I would look at it and cry.

I was tired of crying.

I walked out of the house without it late one Friday night when I knew no one else would be outside.

It took a while to feel comfortable without a uniform. I still feel naked at times. But that first time will stay with me always; an unveiling that is seared in my memory with a plaque reading: Here lies a woman of valor.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The air is cool and brisk. It has been a dry, moody winter and when the cold rain fell this morning a sigh of relief spread over me like a blanket. I am reminded that my sneakers don’t absorb water with a misstep into a pool of rainfall gathering in the groves of uneven pavement. It is dark and this section of sidewalk is poorly lit. My damp toes are worth the protection night has given me.

We are walking around the block. The kids are excited to be out in their pajamas. They chatter and skip, burying their noses in coats someone sent us from a place where winter means snow. Their cheeks are beginning to flush; I’m glad I left the windows open at home.

My husband walks beside me. His every stride is two of mine. No matter how hard we try; we are never fully in sync. He hums, occasionally adding a whistle, the way he does whenever he is lost in thought. I snake my hand into his pocket and find his welcoming fingers.

My heart is pounding.

My entire body is shaking.

I can feel every hair on my scalp.

I want to lower my head. I want to put my hood on. I want to run back home. I want to cry and laugh and cry.

A breeze blows towards me. I can feel the wind run through my exposed strands gently, almost lovingly. My eyes, stinging from the storm raging deep inside my tortured body, tear and swell, spilling sorrow down my cheeks where winter licks them softly dry.

We turn the last corner. We are alone on these cold, wet streets. We are performing a ritual we barely understand ourselves. They are accompanying me as I walk away from the crushing burden I know more intimately than the bare-head reflection I see in the mirrored lobby wall.

She smiles at me as I pass, her eyes are bright and bold and beautiful.

Letting Grief out to Play

Every year, I would sit down during the three weeks and write. I always wrote about pain and suffering, the land of Israel and the idea of redemption. I couldn’t run away from relating to the entire period so intensely and savagely.

Fearfully.

There was always an element of fear that flowed through my emotions. Maybe it was how I was raised. Maybe it was the depressing contatas I sat through every year in Camp Bnos. Maybe it was the Holocaust stories we read every Tisha B’Av. Maybe it was the song of Eicha sending shivers down my spine.

Maybe it was irrational.

Maybe it was real.

Some time has passed since I connected to this mourning period. I have sat shiva. I have ripped my clothes. I have recited kaddish at a grave. Somewhere along the way, I lost the part of me that mourned for the utopia I believed in.

Losing belief; I think that may be what I am mourning for.

***

I used to feel it.

I used to be able to touch the history of the Jewish people, to smell the burning temple, to hear the wails of mothers walking the narrow alleyways, clutching the emaciated bodies of their young. I used to have the torment that connected me to my heritage, to my land, to my people.

It’s gone now.

I buried some of it with my baby boy. Some of it slipped into the bag of my past I had to let go. I shoved a chunk of it into the dirt that encased my sister. The rest dissolved into the air around me.

Gone.

I sort of miss it.

Without it, I don’t know why I am here in this land. I am not sure where my place is among my people. I am lost in a world that doesn’t understand the unbearable weight of grief thousands of years old.

Without it, I have to view my own pain as immeasurable against the pain endured by the masses. I have suddenly become an individual with a hurt that cannot be locked in the confines of three weeks, taken out to be inspected for relatability on one day.

Without it, my grief is my own. It comes and goes as it pleases. It has no laws to follow, no schedule to keep. It pulls me back from the little joys I reach for and violently wakes me in the night.

I miss the container within the giant storage box where my grief used to lay; no different than the millions of little boxes cramped together in a collective hold. I miss the opening of the gates as the flock of grief poured up and over and pretended to make a difference for less than a month. I miss the quiet collection as the flock sunk back into the small spaces and clasped the lid shut tight.

I hate that I miss it.

I hate that it’s gone.

***

The feelings expressed above are rooted in my personal experiences. No two stories are alike, but we can find similarities in our journeys. How do you relate with the concept of mourning on Tisha B’Av? Let me know in the comments below.

 

 

 

How to Lose Your Faith and Keep Your Friends

how to lose your faith and keep your friends

I am one of the few lucky ones. I have my husband and my children on this journey with me. I have my family who loves and accepts me. I have learned to connect with the people I love in ways that don’t hurt. We talk about life and feelings and our shared past and our interests and the weather when there’s not much else to say. We don’t talk about religion and we try to avoid politics. I know pain and disappointment linger in the cracks of our relationships but I try my best to be open, loving and understanding. I can love you even if you hate my choices. And I know you love me even though you hate my choices.

Friends are not family.

But I am still one of the lucky ones.

This one is for you, my friend.

***

You choose your friends.

You find your common ground and you hang out in the same places and have similar schedules that make it impossible to do anything together on any random night.

You save your friendships for the end of the week.

Your friends are in the same social circle you wander around, even if you are always on the outskirts and they are in the center.

You meet in shul or outside the shul and you invite each other over for Shabbat meals. You sit in the park while your kids run around and you catch up. You talk about your life and your feelings and your kids and your politics and your interests and your religion and you feel connected.

You form friendships out of a religious belief even though you have come to realize that the people behind the label mean more to you than the belief you may or may not share. And you treasure your friends so you think about them when you think about what you may or may not believe.

You need to put yourself first so you make some decisions and you walk off a cliff. Your friends don’t know because you didn’t tell them you were planning on hurtling through the air with a wall of rocks to your right and vast open air to your left. There might be a body of water beneath the clouds you are plummeting through. Maybe not. Your friends don’t know so they don’t know you survived.

You decide not to go to shul anymore and so you don’t see your friends quite as often. You take off your head covering and someone raises an eyebrow. You start disappearing from school pickup because you are going through too much to explain to other people. You make some uncomfortable comments about rabbis. You show up at the park on Shabbat in weekday clothes.

Then you write some blog posts and think about the last time you got together at a friend’s house for a Friday night meal.

You survived but you’re not unscathed.

You go back to the park on Shabbat afternoon because you crave something you didn’t know you ever had.

You find that you can still connect with your friends as long as you don’t address the elephant you dragged into the room. You talk about your life and your feelings and your kids and your politics and your interests and sometimes even religion.

But you want to talk about the elephant because the weight of it is slowly draining you and you can’t keep pretending it isn’t there.

Then you find yourself in the park and you are with your friend and you are talking about the elephant and it is shrinking because your friend is talking about it with you.

And you realize that you can lose your faith and keep your friends if you have the kind of friends like mine.

***

The feelings expressed above are rooted in my personal experiences. No two stories are alike, but we can find similarities in our journeys. Have you ever felt this way about a friendship? Let me know in the comments below.

Sometimes, I Cry Alone in the Night

My previous post touched on the journey my family has been on together. Although we are currently on the same page, my husband and I took different paths and followed forks in the road that sometimes seemed like they would never meet. After the birth of our son, I felt so disconnected from Judaism and lost in my marriage. I felt like I was constantly putting on a show and I was so tired. In the end, it turned out that I had mono. We chalked it up to that and continued on our separate paths until years later when we suddenly bumped into each other again. At the time, I wrote a more cryptic blog post. Looking back, I can still feel that loneliness. I want to share my experience for anyone who is standing opposite someone they love and trying not to break them with their need to be honest. You may feel alone right now, and you may be alone, but there are so many of us alone in the night. When we cry, we cry together.

***

I am trying not to hurt him.

It is hard to focus on the content of the words I am forming when he is looking into my eyes with an intensity I have not seen since my eyes met his over the lifeless bundle of cloth that held our firstborn.

It is sorrow.

He is looking at me in sorrow.

I swallow and lower my gaze.

“I’m not sure I believe,” I mumble.

He doesn’t ask me to repeat it. He’s known this for some time now, he just thought it was something I could live with.

I did live with it for a long time. I theorized that if it was all true, I did a great job and if it wasn’t I didn’t hurt anyone. I was fine with the path he wanted. I was fine with the direction that meant I could have family and friends and feel part of the familiar. I was fine with it until I started hurting and then I wasn’t fine with it.

So I tell him.

We are fighting about it now. We are at each other’s core and we are clashing so hard. I am banging on his soul and he is looking away, refusing to see himself reflected in my pain.

I turn inwards. I write because I cannot speak.

Love is not a game for losers…losers make hearts bleed and blister…losers never get it right…

Hearts can get broken… they can shatter… wilt…they can cease to beat…

Dying cries of murdered love…whispered accusations…wordless shame…

Nothing can bring back the sparks that set the fire ablaze…nothing can extinguish the rage…nothing can make this cold fire warm again…

Red-eyed woman…curled on the floor…her heart ripped open…leaking hopes and dreams…soaking her…draining her…sucking the life out of her…

Devil’s laughter rings loud and strong…mocking…mimicking her acts of love…knowing her to be nothing more than an actor giving up on the lead role…an understudy…

She can’t go on…she can’t move…she must give in…to the overwhelming sadness…of the realization that she does not know who this woman is…or what she wants…

He cannot be the man of her dreams…never sweep her off her feet…he will never hear her heart beat full…of love…of life…

His mind stumbles over what is true…and what is perceived…by her…by him…by others…

He wants to understand…he cannot…he will not…

Love is not a game for losers…losers make hearts bleed and blister…losers never get it right…

I am also postpartum and sick so we aren’t going to take me seriously until one day, he tells me he isn’t sure he believes.

The Wicked Daughter

Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly reflective, I imagine my life as a boy.

I wonder if I would make the choices I make today, had I been a boy. I think that I would, because I believe my gender plays only a small part in my human make-up.

Maybe the road here would have been a little less painful, had I been a boy.

Had I been a boy, my questions would have been refuted, my doubts debated and my commentary dubbed “interesting, although off-point”.

Had I been a boy, my jeans would have been tolerated, my hairstyle overlooked and my language unchecked.

Had I been a boy, my home would have been open, rules would have been bent, and flexible schools found.

Had I been a boy, I would have hung out with my friends and crashed on their couch. I would have worked in a pizza shop or bagel store and had enough money to buy my own drugs.

Had I been a boy, I would have grabbed a beer at Shul and been given a shot or two or three Friday night after the fish.

Had I been a boy, I would have felt no fear in the dark hours of the night and would not have had to learn to keep my guard up.

Had I been a boy, I would have had a slew of caring people working in the many different organizations and schools that would have been available to me and would not have had to fight to try to save the only place that could teach me to live.

Had I been a boy, I would have been asked how the program I was in helped me therapeutically and would not have been asked when I started dressing ‘appropriately’.

Had I been a boy, my accomplishments would have been celebrated and I would not have had to keep proving myself through marriage and childbirth.

Had I been a boy, my frustration with the system would have led to a leadership position where I would have a chance to make real change and my emotions would not be considered when I offered my constructive criticism.

Had I been a boy, I would have been exactly who I am I today with the addition of a voice.

Had I been a boy, I would have been the wicked son.

Had I been a boy, I would have taken my place at the table.

Had I been a boy, I would have asked my question.

Had I been a boy, I would have then walked away, teeth intact.

Had I been a boy, I would have been invited back.

But I am not a boy…and there was never room for me at the Seder anyway…

Source: The Wicked Daughter

I Am Woman — Please Don’t Make Me Roar

I am woman; I am tired of roaring.

For as long as I can remember, my throat has burned from the constant constriction of my vocal chords fighting to be heard in a world where I was made second.

From his rib, you were formed, by his side you shall stay…

If it helps you accept it, you can think of it as opposite him…

He needs you to make a better him even though you don’t need him to do anything except plant his seed…

I knew the word he before she.

I saw his accomplishments as ultimate goals and was shown how to play a supporting role.

I was taught to speak softly, walk gently, keep my hips from lilting.

I was told to be still, stay low, be less woman, be more girl and not to share my song.

I was shown his desires and told to shut up, sit down and take it.

You are a woman…it is your place…

I fought it.

I fought it so hard it made me bleed all over the smooth foundation of everything I thought I should be building on.

I scratched my skin with knives to see if the blood matched his and when I saw it flow I knew he could never understand because life didn’t expect him to bleed.

I roared so damn loud, it tore my voice from me and almost made me mute.

I am woman.

I am tired of roaring.

So I teach my daughter that she is human first.

I teach her she can do anything she sets her mind to.

I teach her that her shape is not her definition.

I teach her to stand up and speak clearly and firmly.

I teach her how to listen.

I teach my son the exact same thing.

I am woman and I am so damn tired of roaring.

I am woman; hear me.

Source: I Am Woman — Please Don’t Make Me Roar

The Fear Factor

My heart was pounding furiously, my limbs tense and waiting, as I slowly placed the headphones over my ears.  Carefully, I slid deeper into the cave I had created with blankets and pillows, hiding alone in my locked room with a chair propped against the door.  I was ready.

My sweaty palms held the Walkman as if it was a grenade.  I pressed play and waited to be blown to bits.

* * *

Recently, I had a discussion with a group of amazing young women about the concepts of fear vs. love in serving G-d.  I’m all for love, but the one point I had to bring was the incentives that fear gives a person.

Growing up in a religious home, I was given the experience of fearing G-d so that it was second nature to me.  I knew that G-d was everywhere, could see into my thoughts and feelings, and that I wouldn’t be able to hide anything from Him.  At a certain point in my childhood, I thought that G-d had seen more than enough and must hate me.  I grew a bit bolder and decided to give Him a show that would seal the deal and send me straight to hell where I undoubtedly belonged, hence the Friday Night Musical Nightmare.

Breaking Shabbos in that manner was so incredibly frightening.  I was absolutely confident that He was there, despite the layers, locks, and darkness.  I knew Him, felt Him and was desperate to drive Him away.

But that fear….oh that fear…..

Welcoming Him back into my life was a process of love and understanding.  No one wanted to remind me about fearing Him, and there was a very particular slant to all the things I was taught.

Here I am now, in love with my G-d and my life, with no clue how to think of Him as an Almighty G-d who I should be in proper awe of.

I want that fear.  I need that fear.

It’s the only way I can do what I want to do even when I don’t want to do it.  It’s the only way I can push myself to go out of my comfort zone, do things I don’t understand, accept reasoning beyond my scope of intelligence and make a habit of living His way all day, every day.

Trembling before G-d under my blankets when I was twelve years old is the closest I ever really got to acknowledging His absolute sovereignty.

And I’ll never get it back.