Posted on September 20, 2011 by Derek Kwait
Facinating article for discussion from Reform Judaism Magazine (for the record, I stumbled upon it via a positive review on an Orthodox site): http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=2854
For the past week, my alarm has gone off every morning at seven—the click of the radio calling me to another day of altered consciousness. I have risen and washed my hands, recited b’rachot, and—covering my elbows, knees, collar bones—snuck out of the sleepy silence of my bedroom into the briskness of an autumn dawn.
For seven days, I have davened (worshiped) shacharit, mincha, and maariv. I have categorized my food, separating meat and dairy, and offered thanks after meals. Most of all, I have kept close watch on myself, pausing to take the pulse of my religious identity, as I’ve tried, for a week only, to experience a different way of being a Jew.
Having been raised in a committed Reform household, I’ve long known that being a Reform Jew allows me a great deal of personal autonomy in Jewish practice. But…with freedom comes the responsibility of choice. To fulfill myself in a Reform context, I don’t need to observe every commandment, but I do need to know the answer to a very important question: Why? Why do I choose to observe one ritual or commandment and not another?
In college, the why problem magnified. More options for Jewish practice existed than I’d ever realized. And I no longer had to be wedded to practices just because they were “the way I was raised.” How, for example, could I be sure that I was the type of Jew who prayed only on Shabbat, if I’d never tried anything different?
And so I came up with “frum week.” For seven days, I would do every Jewish ritual I could think of—big or small, no exceptions—to see whether rituals I had never tried or been mindful of would be meaningful to me.
Frum week required much more diligence and mental exertion than I’d anticipated. I’d thought studying for Organic Chemistry exams was hard, but nothing gets those brain cells firing like trying to figure out how to eat without violating the rules of kashrut. A previously unknown state of hyper-consciousness was required before I could touch anything on my tray. I found myself in Catch-22 situations daily: If I didn’t eat bread with my meal, I had to figure out four separate blessings before I could start; but if I did, I had to recite the motzi (blessing over bread) at the beginning and the long birkat hamazon at meal’s end. Did my quinoa with roasted peppers count as a grain or a vegetable? My roommate brought home cookies—were they hekshered (determined to be kosher)? If so, were they dairy? If dairy, when was the last time I had eaten meat? And how was I to categorize various soups? I would stand in the lunch line, chatting with someone about how I had to say a b’rachah before I ate anything, and only then realize I’d been picking string beans off of my plate for a full minute without a second thought. I had never realized how mindless eating could be for me until I was suddenly forced to think about everything I put near my mouth.
Though I had twenty years of practicing my way, in the span of only a week I adapted to a new pattern. One day I got the blessings completely right, and I felt like a champion. And by day five I’d cut two minutes off of the time it took to recite the birkat hamazon.
One of the surprising side effects of being aware all the time was never feeling like I overate. It’s so easy to sit in the college dining hall for an hour talking to your friends and constantly refilling your plate. But during frum week I had to say something to mark when my meal started and when it ended. And in that blessing, I was thanking God for satiating me—not for giving me too much, not for a mountainous abundance of chocolate chip cookies, but for being satisfied. I had assumed that thinking about food constantly would make me want to consume it all the time, but because eating was framed by something meaningful, it had the opposite effect.
The new rules I chose to observe also increased other people’s awareness of me. I’d like to think that before frum week I wasn’t parading around campus in overly revealing clothing, but still, wearing long skirts, cardigans, and crew neck tops represented a recognizable change in my wardrobe. Inquiries from friends about my new “uniform” often elicited explanations about my project. As for strangers who passed me in the street, no one treated me any differently, but I felt different, knowing that they recognized that I was, if not certainly Jewish, then at least a member of a community that required modesty of women. It was disconcerting for me to so publicly manifest a normally internal part of my identity. My male friends who wear kippot validated this feeling of hyperconsciousness. Some said wearing a kippah made them reluctant to act inappropriately, for fear of feeding negative stereotypes; others commented that it gave them the incentive to do something nice for others. Throughout the week I remained ambivalent on the clothing issue. On the one hand, being so easily singled out by appearance made me feel unique and important. On the other, I felt that displaying my Judaism so prominently caused others to see my identity along only one dimension.
Prayer was by far the most challenging part of my week. It wasn’t carving out the time from a Yale academic schedule that was so difficult; in fact, having those necessary breaks and seeing the same people at the same hours every day because of a prescribed rhythm was incredibly calming. What was hard was figuring out how to have some sort of meeting with God on a fixed schedule instead of coming to it on my own. I was going to have to pray shacharit each morning at the 7:30 service whether I was ready to or not, so how was I going to make the experience spiritually meaningful? Also, the mode of prayer made me feel disconnected. There was just too much I didn’t know—I was using an unfamiliar siddur, and even though I’m fairly fluent in reading Hebrew, I could barely keep up with the pace set by my peers, who had a lifetime’s experience of saying the same words day in and day out. I was constantly trying to figure out how many pages I was behind or which prayers I could skip. It was a good day if I could make it through the Amidah once before the leader finished his repetition.
I did, however, gain a very important understanding from davening with others. Before frum week, I had assumed that more observant Jews were just speed reading through the prayers, as compared to the Reform Jews in my home congregation, who actively participated in musical prayer services—the kind of service which often helped me feel connected to God. But after spending so much time experiencing this different style of prayer, I begin to sense that the “mumbling” was really its own type of music, with its own rhythm, its own voice rising and falling.
The new level of observance I experienced during frum week also gave me a different way of connecting to God. Previously I believed that some undercurrent of Divinity was in the world around me; to experience it I simply needed to enter the world with open eyes and wait for God’s presence to appear to me. During frum week, each action I took was a forced pause of mindfulness of the Divine, an awareness that my every deed was meant to advance me toward God, regardless of how I was feeling at that moment.
As the week progressed, it became quite clear that I had embarked on a personal test—an experiment of trying out a lifestyle that ultimately was not for me. On one level I recognized that the painful, exhaustive reality of getting so little sleep overshadowed the wonder of walking out into the dawn for shacharit. But on a deeper level, it was unsettling to know that as a woman I simply did not count. However warm a community I had found in those shared, carved-out hours of the day, I would not be able to continue praying in it.
Now that an extinguished havdallah candle has marked the end of my altered lifestyle, my clavicles once again see the sun. And with the return to the comfort of familiar words, familiar prayers, familiar orders of the day, my former why? has been replaced with: What do I continue?
I still don’t have an answer. I am unsure.
Here is what I do know: I will always welcome the opportunity to share in another person’s reckoning with the Divine. I will always continue to ask questions of others and of myself.
While this week may have appeared the very antithesis of Reform Jewish practice, it would not have been a success without the strength I have gained from my own denomination. This week gave the informed choices I make as a Reform Jew renewed depth and meaning.
Whether I choose for my alarm to go off tomorrow morning at seven or at nine, I do know that a world filled with God, and with people doing their best to reach God, is what I will be waking up to. For me, all the rest of Judaism—the ritual, the prayers, the understanding of Torah—is built around this one unchangeable truth.
—Emily Langowitz, a senior at Yale University and member of Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley, Massachusetts