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.

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.

Someone Called the Rabbi on Me…

I debated writing this post…I thought that maybe I shouldn’t stir any trouble…that if I did say something, I would only be hurting myself more.

But I have to write how I feel and I have to put it out there where it will be seen. This is who I am; this is how I can keep going through all the twists and turns of my life.

So here it is…here is how I felt when I found out that the Rabbi of the community I am currently living in was called about me and my family…how we had left Orthodoxy…and the subsequent tangible murmurings and distance we’ve felt.

Making this decision was agonizing for me and my husband, and extremely challenging with children old enough to understand the process. We never really felt a deep connection with this community, but we had built friendships within it and had a surface-level kinship with most of the members as coreligionists.

Now that we have even less in common with so many of the people in our small community, the emotional baggage of our childhoods has resurfaced along with the need to fit in or blend in so that we can avoid the pain of living on the outside. We’ve worked on that, and we have embraced our decisions and our truths and no longer feel shame or fear about who we are.

I write this for that person hiding in the pack, afraid of someone finding something out and having the shame of the protective blanket of lies wrapped around them ripped away in unwanted exposure.

You may be feeling alone right now, but feeling alone with a truth you can live with is far better than feeling alone with a truth you cannot face.

I don’t know how old I was when someone told me telling the truth was shameful and should be avoided at all costs.

I did not want the shame I already felt to be seen by anyone else so I made lying my truth.

When I was 12 years old, someone called my mother to tell her that somewhere along the way, I had not learned to read. My skin burned red and no one wrapped me up in comfort and told me I did not have to lie.

When I was 13 years old, someone found a packet of my lying truths I wrote to test the waters of friendship and trust and returned them to sender. My parents read my spun tales and believed me when I said I had lied but the shame washed over me like he had said it would so I dug the truth deeper under my skin.

When I was 15 years old, someone thought I had disappeared and searched all over for me, finding me walking back to safety with a boy who had bought me pizza and listened to my hopes and aspirations without judgment. I was dragged back to the security of taped mouths and bound bodies and saw shame in my parents’ eyes. It felt like daggers stabbing a dead corpse and I knew that my heart had been stolen.  

When I was 16 years old, someone called my father to tell him about something I had done in a dark garage at the end of a long driveway where my heart was pounding and fear was forcing my eyes shut and my body to learn the fine art of floating into the trees outside. We didn’t speak about it because I no longer existed.

When I was 17 years old, someone called someone every time I came up for air.

When I was 20 years old, I found something deep within that felt like a truth and everyone I loved was able to breathe again because they could bear the truth I wore.

When I was 30 years old, I could no longer let that truth that had been a lie drain my soul. I decided I was going to learn to love that little girl who was so afraid of shame.

When I was 32 years old, I found that I had absorbed all shame and could finally live a truth that was mine.

Then someone called the Rabbi on me…

And now I am 10 years old again and I am nodding my head and promising that I will never tell.

Unmasked

I have worn my face behind something other than my skin for so long I don’t know if I can recognize my reflection.

At first, I wore the way I felt outside my heart. I didn’t know not to do that. I didn’t know that hearts exposed make people feel uncomfortable.

I learned to hide my heart when one too many people wore it down.

Instead, I took my anger and hate and wrapped myself up in loneliness and presented me to the world.

When I couldn’t bear myself anymore, I found belief to peer out from under and I made myself shut down.

I wore a skirt and then a headscarf. I looked down and kept quiet. I blended in.

I was miserable.

I was lost.

I thought there was no one left behind the face I put on beneath the years of expectations and the demands of my past dictating each step I took.

One day, broken, misunderstood and fed up with how I was seen, I tore my hair covering off my head and felt the wind.

It was as if I tapped myself on the shoulder and turned around in surprise as I met someone I use to know.

We are getting to know each other, she and I.

I think I like her.

I am standing on a wire now, between skins. I am slowly peeling off the layers.

What I find brings me comfort and peace, even while it hurts the ones I love.

I know you wish I could accept the mask I was handed at birth and learn to embrace it.

I want you to know that I tried, I really did.

This mask didn’t fit me. I squirmed beneath it until I felt like I had died.

But I haven’t died…I have just discovered that I am alive.

The mask is coming off now…

I am about to shine.